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On movies: Coen brothers score again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 10, 2008 - Time and time again, in the strange and strangely believable universe created by the Coen brothers, obsessive characters pursue elusive goals - a lawman tries to catch a killer and find meaning in a world marked by seemingly random violence ("No Country for Old Men"); a deceptively laid-back slacker searches for a missing rug ("The Big Lebowski"); a childless couple commits major felonies to obtain a baby ("Raising Arizona"). In the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, pursuit of a goal is inevitably complicated by the competing needs of other characters, and chaos ensues.

Coen brothers movies almost always mix comedy with tragedy, and sometimes one way to determine which form predominates is to decide how serious the goal is. By that definition, "Burn After Reading" is a comedy, even if it does has some very serious aspects, not to mention the usual Coen brothers display of sudden and unexpected bloody death.

The goal that sets and keeps the plot in motion is an obviously ridiculous if somewhat sad one. A 40-something fitness center employee (Frances McDormand) needs thousands of dollars for elective plastic surgery that, she believes, would make her more attractive to men. As McDormand's real-life husband, Joel Coen, clearly knows, Fran does not need plastic surgery, but her character is willing to do almost anything to get it.

She enlists the aid of a flighty and virtually brainless personal trainer, played with great comic gusto by Brad Pitt. (The Coens like to murk up the matinee-idol glow of handsome movie stars with bad hairdos, exemplified by Javier Bardem's hoosier pageboy in "No Country of Old Men," and Pitt weighs in this time with 'do that looks as if a brown skunk crawled on his head and died.)

Through plot machinations too complicated to detail here, McDormand and Pitt come into the possession of a disc containing the memoirs of a disgruntled, alcoholic former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, played by John Malkovich in a role impervious to his penchant for over-the-top histrionics. The two try to sell the disc back to Malkovich and when that fails they take it to the Russian embassy, which doesn't seem very interested.

Meanwhile, Malkovich's wife (Tilda Swinton) is planning on filing for divorce so she can marry federal marshal George Clooney, who is unbeknownst to Swinton cheating on his wife with any number of other women in Washington, including Frances McDormand. Ah, the great circle of life.

Pretty soon, spies and private detectives are swarming all over the place, and it begins to appear that everyone is always under surveillance. And people begin to die. The CIA tries to figure out what is going on, and even exercise some control, but the spy masters are pretty much baffled by events and seem mainly useful in getting rid of bodies so the press and the public don't start asking pesky questions. It may not be a co-incidence that the title of the movie echoes "Burn Before Reading," a recent book in which a former CIA director unveils some of the agency's dirty laundry.

Filled with marvelous character actors like Richard Jenkins, who plays the nice man who runs the fitness center where McDormand works, and is quietly but deeply in love with her, and J.K. Simmons, who plays a remarkably adaptable CIA executive, the film moves exactly as fast as it needs to, never sagging but always willing to pause for a moment of cinematic truth. For instance, there are a couple of very brief cocktail parties, both driving the plot, that also give a wonderfully satirical look at the always-on-the-make type A behavior typical of social gatherings among ambitious Washington bureaucrats.

"Burn After Reading" is hilarious and disturbing - some of these deeply flawed people, after all, help determine who lives and who dies and when and where we go to war.

The Coen brothers are once again at the top of their game, and it's hard to think of any contemporary filmmakers who have produced two films in a row - in some ways, so different, and yet at the core so alike - that are as fine as "No Country for Old Men" and "Burn After Reading."

'The Women' Without Substance

When my wife got tired of listening to me vent about "The Women," the lame new remake of the classic (and classy) George Cukor film, she asked, reasonably enough, "How were the clothes?"

I said I guessed the clothes were OK. There certainly were a lot of them. Half the movie was shot in Saks Fifth Avenue, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and one of the principal protagonists, Meg Ryan, finds her bliss and the route out of a mid-life crisis by becoming a clothing designer, so we also get to see her entire fall line. Or maybe it's her spring line.

Anyway, the movie is shallow and lazy and unfocused and keeps lurching uncertainly in the direction of "Sex and the City" without ever coming close. Clare Booth Luce, who wrote the original 1936 play, and Cukor were satirizing the rich, among other things, but the new version of "The Women," directed by "Murphy Brown" veteran Diane English, tries to make the rich seem as plucky and lovable and needy as golden retrievers.

The all-woman cast is, so to speak, studded with stars -- in addition to Ryan, who plays a suburban housewife who discovers her husband is cheating, there's magazine editor Annette Bening, temptress Eva Mendes, lipstick lesbian Jada Pinkett Smith and supermom Candace Bergen, among others, and they all change clothes at the drop of a platinum card. On the off chance you haven't seen a movie in the past month or so that features a theoretically comic scene in which a woman -- in this case, Debra Messing -- screams her head off while delivering a baby, here's your opportunity.

Hartper Barnes is a long-time cultural and movie critic. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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