Burn After Reading (2008) -vs- Raising Arizona (1987)

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Burn After Reading” opened as a modest box office leader last weekend.  Fresh from their large haul of Academy Awards (for “No Country For Old Men”) their bleak and elliptical artistic vision is now pretty much enshrined forever. The Brothers walk on water across Hollywood because their quirky, memorable movies remain well made, well received and (this is probably key) produced inexpensively.

Their newest effort — a comedy — recalls the Coen’s earliest work in combining pitiless observation, oddball characters and stylized story lines. For their “funny” movies “Raising Arizona” set the bar 21 years ago for what to expect. It’s a solid favorite for Coen fans (I’m one of them) and stands in the Champion’s corner. Will it stay there after “Burn After Reading?” That’s our Smackdown!

The Challenger

Nothing is simple with the Coen Brothers, except for some of the main characters. In “Burn” they’ve written and directed a convoluted story that begins with disgruntled CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quitting his job rather than accept a demotion. Cox puts off everyone and his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) isn’t far behind. She plots to leave the marriage while carrying on with serial philanderer Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Cox fills his days failing as a consultant and writing his memoirs. Along the way we meet Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and dimwit Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Their roles bloom after the secretary of Katie’s divorce lawyer loses a CD of Cox’s memoir at the health club where Linda and Chad work. Blackmail, murder and the quest for plastic surgery become a pretzel of major themes. I did say the story is convoluted. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Champion

“Raising Arizona” fully exposes the Coen’s affection for the terminally bizarre, beginning with petty criminal H.I. “Hi”  McDunnough (Nicholas Cage). His life bounces between years in lockup and getting arrested. Hi falls for the policewoman taking his mugshots, Edwina  — “Ed.” Hi and Ed (Holly Hunter) share a trailer out in the desert, but something’s missing: “Biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless,” Hi laments. That sets into motion a ludicrous plot to kidnap one of the locally famous Arizona quintuplets. Not surprising, events spin out of control, no thanks to Hi’s escapee pals Gale and Evelle Snoats. A nightmarish bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls, lingers in the background. A change of heart turns the action 180 degrees. You wonder if the conclusion is real, or a fever-dream brought on by the heat.

The Scoreboard

This is bravura film making with unmistakable similarities. Both integrate byzantine story lines with equally complicated characters. Low angles, crisp dialogue and a restless camera showcase first rate casts. “Raising Arizona” made Holly Hunter a star, and did no harm to the careers of John Goodman, William Forsythe and Nicholas Cage. We even get an early look at Frances McDormand.

Two decades later, McDormand breathes special life into “Burn After Reading.” Her character wants plastic surgery in the worst way: “I have gone as far as I can with this body.” She’s also in strong company: Clooney, Malkovich, Swinton and especially Brad Pitt, who turns a minor role into a major comic achievement. J.K. Simmons — as a CIA big shot — is note perfect. Together, they make an odd story funny and engaging.

Two well-made films similar in many ways — Is there a winner here? Yup.

The Decision

The margin can be measured in the artistic vision of the Coens. They still air out the idiosyncrasies of their characters, none of whom is remotely normal. They are unsparing. Story arcs remain bumpy and twisted like a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Coens are matured in approach. If they could remake “Raising Arizona” perhaps the characters would not be so broadly drawn, the storytelling might not play second banana to the audacious technique.

That won’t happen and it’s just as well. Let’s keep “Raising Arizona” in its honored place in the DVD library. It marks how much the Coen Brothers have grown with our winner, “Burn After Reading.”


About Mark Sanchez

Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.
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4 Responses to Burn After Reading (2008) -vs- Raising Arizona (1987)

  1. Mark Sanchez says:

    Irene:
    Thanks for the note. Both films are funny and well made, and your comment about Brad Pitt underscores something special about “Burn After Reading.” He’s a strong comic actor and he perfectly portrayed a dim bulb. I just wanted to slap him around; instead, I laughed. His is a minor role, but Pitt may be first among equals in a strong cast.

  2. Mark Sanchez says:

    Irene:
    Thanks for the note. Both films are are funny and well made, and your comment about Brad Pitt underscores something special about “Burn After Reading.” He’s a strong comic actor and he perfectly portrayed a dim bulb. I just wanted to slap him around; instead, I laughed. His is a minor role, but Pitt may be first among equals in a strong cast.


  3. I just saw Burn After Reading last weekend and just about bust a gut laughing.
    Brad Pitt was amazing. He has a great future as a character actor. I’m going to watch his career a little more carefully after this astounding comic turn. It’s so nice to know he’s got a bit of range. My favorite scene is when he’s on a stake out in his car listening and dancing to a song on his iPod.
    This analysis of these two films is spot on. Keep up the good work.

  4. Bryce Zabel says:

    This film really worked for me. The final minute of the picture got huge laughs in the theater I was in because it had completely earned the absurdity of that moment. Also, Brad Pitt was fantastic. If a group of hugely famous stars are going to gather in an ensemble, I’d prefer they do it in pictures like “Burn After Reading” than “Ocean’s Fourteen” or whatever’s next…

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