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!
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.
“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.
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 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.”