September 15, 2008

TO THE COENS: What Were You Thinking?

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From: Ted Hamilton
To: Mr. Coen
cc: Mr. Coen
Subject: Your new “film”

Dear Sirs,
My name is Ted Hamilton, and I recently saw your new movie, Burn After Reading. Before we discuss reimbursement for my ticket, I would like to raise a few points.
First: An A-list cast does not a fine film make. Sure, you’ve got Clooney and Pitt, but this isn’t Ocean’s Fourteen. John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and a host of other recognizables don’t help. You can’t save a sinking ship.
Second: It was my impression, especially after No Country For Old Men, that you two had a conception of plot and coherence. Have you gotten lucky in the past, or did you just now have a multi-million dollar brain fart?
Third: I know you guys don’t write the music for your movies, but I’m sure you have some editorial control over the score. So here’s a suggestion: Go easy on the pulse-pounding percussion and the sentimental woodwinds. This isn’t The Bourne Ultimatum; the audience shouldn’t need auditory clues to know that a scene is exciting (or poignant, or clever or whatever the hell you’re going for).
Let me be blunt: I think your movie sucks. And given your track record — No Country, Fargo, The Big Lebowski — I’m going to judge you more harshly than I might have otherwise.
Your movie opens with spy Osborne Cox (Malkovich) getting fired from the C.I.A. For the next several scenes, we focus on Cox (is that name just a stupid joke?) and his rapidly deteriorating life. But then the guy seems to disappear for awhile — which is a big problem — and we shift instead to gym employee Linda Litzke (McDormand) and her efforts to undergo cosmetic surgery. Brad Pitt comes in as her over-energized and under-developed colleague, and then there’s Harry Pfaffer (Clooney), an ex-State Department bodyguard who’s banging Cox’s wife.
Multiple plot lines! Clever intersections! A film collapsing under the weight of its own conceit!
Linda and Chad (Pitt) come across a CD of C.I.A. documents in their gym. They proceed to attempt a blackmail operation against Cox and a backhand deal with the Russians. Linda and Harry hook up through an Internet dating site and Cox kills a guy with a hatchet. There’s bits about silly divorce attorneys and a rocking chair equipped with a dildo.
I get that this is a story about morons. But did it have to be a tale told by two idiots?
I know, I know: Sometimes farce is a good thing. Watching a group of jackasses fumble their way through some sticky situations can be enjoyable. So why not just indulge in the silliness of it all?
Because, Mr. and Mr. Coen, there’s an implied contract between filmmaker and viewer. That contract prohibits such things as sloppy editing, crappy character development and painful redundancy. You of all people should be aware of critical and popular expectations: It’s not right to draw people in with the promise of something great and give them a hack job that seems to have been written during an afternoon of whip-its.
I feel bad for Clooney and Pitt, who did decent jobs to no avail (though I’m sure they were handsomely rewarded). Less so for Malkovich, who just played his usual pompous prick part. (Would a C.I.A. agent really pronounce “memoir” like a retarded Frenchman?) And then there’s McDormand — ugh. She puts the “irk” in quirky. Never has spontaneous emotion seemed so forced. Go back to Fargo, lady, and take your creepy naïveté with you.
Oh, I almost forgot — the ending. Could it have been any more contrived? Two C.I.A. bigwigs sit in an office and basically retell the story, adding important details that must have escaped the shooting budget. And they say how stupid the whole farce is, as if we didn’t already know. I have a sneaking suspicion, Ethan and Joel, that this scene — and the two similar ones that preceded it — were added in a last-minute effort to shore up an obviously lacking plot. Shame on you.
But I suppose Burn After Reading was instructive in one way. It reminded me that making a good movie ain’t easy. I’m still not convinced you guys even really tried here — the film smacks of last-minute additions and subtractions, rushed production, an overall lack of purpose — but it goes to show that even the best of them can falter.
So that’s off my chest. Send me my check, a written apology and a copy of No Country For Old Men, and I might consider forgiving you.