Monday, September 15, 2008

Trying on the Cranky Pants for size: Burn After Reading

[Vague spoiler alert. If you skip the review, the main point is, don't go to see Burn After Reading.]

Tim Goodman, TV reviewer for the S.F. Chronicle, does some great stuff, and some of his best is when he is going to give a bad review, at which time he calls himself Mr. CrankyPants. This week, I am fitting myself for a pair of Cranky Pants, reviewing some movies and TV that deserve a damn good whacking.

The number one movie in America is Burn After Reading, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen. If you've seen the ads, and they have been playing on TV for months, you'll see that it is has a great cast. John Malcovich, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, pictured here, are just the best known of the cast. A lot of other really good actors show up here as well, including Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons and David Rasche. The problem is that the movie is billed as a comedy, and it isn't funny.

There's a lot of swearing, and swearing can be funny, but not here. Characters have funny flaws, but I wasn't laughing much early, and after a certain point, I wasn't laughing at all.

The big problem is two very not funny acts of violence, portrayed very graphically. Some of the audience I saw the movie with were still laughing during the first pivotal scene, but I stopped and so did Jodi, the friend who went to the movie with me.

I'm not against slapstick, and not even against graphic violence in a comedy if those are the ground rules. I laughed my ass off at Shaun of the Dead, but I knew going in that it was a horror film/comedy. The Coen Brothers' earlier film Raising Arizona is about the kidnapping of a child, and has some very violent scenes, but it sticks to some rules. We see by reaction shots that the baby never thinks of himself as being in grave danger, and the worst violence happens to the comic villain, The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, played by Randall "Tex" Cobb, but because he is nearly a cartoon villain, when he gets blowed up, it's almost more like Yosemite Sam or Wile E. Coyote.

Burn After Reading plays like a bumbling caper comedy, but then... BANG! Not a comedy anymore. The character who gets the brunt of the violence doesn't deserve it by showing evil tendencies. There's even a second act of violence nearly as graphic, and the second victim deserves his fate even less.

These are small spoilers, I know, but I want to warn people away from this flick. I really hated it, and now that it is so popular and getting generally good reviews, I get the feeling a lot of people will see it and come away disappointed.

Mr. Cranky Pants says save your money.


CDP said...

I'm surprised at this; every critic seems to think it's great. I run hot and cold with the Coen brothers. Fargo is my favorite; I can watch that any time.

jolie said...

interesting, matty boy. like CDP, I count fargo as one of my fav movies. the violence in that film is excruciating, but the plot and character development demand that certain things happen - the garbage disposal, the wood chipper ..... the way the coens frame their plot lead the viewer right up to those actions and you think, "wow that's crude, but of course that's what that character would do."

although, I have to say - it was hard for me to get to that place with blood simple.

jolie said...

having said that, I actually haven't yet seen RAB. one local reviewer gave it only three stars and said the plot is complicated.

which to me means I should wait for the DVD.

Matty Boy said...

I too loved Fargo. There's a lot of violence in it, but the only good person hurt is the kidnap victim, and those responsible are punished, as God intended.

In this movie, there are almost no good people at all, and the one arguably good person is one of the murder victims.

It didn't work for me in a big way.

Padre Mickey said...

I loved Raising Arizona, but I only saw Fargo once. You know what movie I love? Aaja Nachle!

namastenancy said...

I loved Raising Arizona but that was the last Coen Brothers movie that I DID love. My sister lives in Minnesota so I got an earful about Fargo before I ever saw it. I liked it OK but I am not a fan of violence in movies and now, less than ever. I was tempted to go see Burn This for the eye candy but your review will stop me from wasting my money.

dguzman said...

The Coens are very hit-or-miss with me too. Loved Raising Arizona, Fargo. Hated hated hated Blood Simple, Simple Plan.

Thanks for warning me off this one. I had kinda decided that the star-filled cast was just there to overcompensate for a not-good movie. Guess I was right.

jolie said...

great - plan hatched. wait for the DVD and save the big bucks! very cool.

thanks, matty boy!

Matty Boy said...

Note to dguzman: A Simple Plan is by Sam Raimi, not the Coen Brothers. They are friends, but they aren't the same guys.