A “Silly Flame-Out”?

Variety‘s Todd McCarthy has slammed the Coen brothers‘ “arch and ungainly” Burn After Reading, which opened the Venice Film Festival this evening. (McCarthy saw it in L.A. yesterday.) You have to take reviews of comedies with a grain of salt, so this isn’t necessarily an indication of Big Trouble. Did McCarthy like Intolerable Cruelty? (I loved it.) I remember he didn’t care for the stoner humor in The Big Lebowski at all. I’ve spoken, however, to another critic who saw it and was asking himself as he watched the first two acts, “Why am I not laughing?”

McCarthy is calling it a reversion to “sophomoric snarky mode” — a fallback, he means. “A dark goofball comedy about assorted doofuses in Washington, D.C., only some of whom work for the government, the short, snappy picture” — 95 minutes, all in — “tries to mate sex farce with a satire of a paranoid political thriller, with arch and ungainly results. Major star names might stoke some mild B.O. heat with older upscale viewers upon U.S. release Sept. 12, but no one should expect this reunion of George Clooney and Brad Pitt to remotely resemble an Ocean’s film commercially.
“A seriously talented cast has been asked to act like cartoon characters in this tale of desperation, mutual suspicion and vigorous musical beds, all in the name of laughs that only sporadically ensue. Everything here, from the thesps’ heavy mugging to the uncustomarily overbearing score by Carter Burwell and the artificially augmented vulgarities in the dialogue, has been dialed up to an almost grotesquely exaggerated extent, making for a film that feels misjudged from the opening scene and thereafter only occasionally hits the right note.
“The Coens’ script, which feels immature but was evidently written around the same time as that for No Country or Old Men, is just too fundamentally silly, without the grounding of a serious substructure that would make the sudden turn to violence catch the viewer up short. Nothing about the project’s execution inspires the feeling that this was ever intended as anything more than a lark, which would be fine if it were a good one. As it is, audience teeth-grinding sets in early and never lets up.
“Incidental niceties crop up, to be sure. The Coens’ economy of storytelling is in evidence, as is their unerring visual sense, this time in league with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; a low-angle shot of Harry, knife in hand, lingers especially. The date montages are cute, and the facial reactions of JK Simmons, playing a CIA boss more dedicated to avoiding fuss and bother than to getting to the bottom of things, are once again priceless. But on any more substantive level, Burn After Reading is a flame-out.”

30 thoughts on “A “Silly Flame-Out”?

  1. I’m honestly not surprised. This has never looked funny to me and looks more just bumbling buffoonery and I liked (most of) Cruelty and Ladykillers too, but Pitt and Clooney just seem to be hamming up it and mugging far too much here.

  2. This is great, but can we get back to the politics ;)
    I have the script, but haven’t read it yet. I don’t expect anything more than screwball acting in a screwball comedy. Especially when it features the new ratpack of Pitt and Clooney.

  3. This does smack of the Coens following up Fargo with The Big Lebowski. They claim they don’t structure their career that way and I believe them, but turning in a mesmerizingly un-pin-downable comedy is always a slightly perverse thing to do to your nascent fan base.

  4. I admire the way the Coens like to follow up their Oscar winning smashes with an off-the-wall, self-indulgent, goofball of a film. Whether it’s funny or not depends on the viewer. I know plenty of people that expected another critical masterpiece after Fargo and ended up just being perplexed by Lebowski. Burn After Reading might not even be comparable to Lebowski, but there really isn’t anything else to look forward to in September so I’ll take it.

  5. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY? I can’t remember a thing about it. It was like a Jimmy Buffet album. I guess I didn’;t like it. I didn’t like HUDSUCKER PROXY, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? or MILLER’S CROSSING either.

  6. I remember seeing Big Lebowski after watching Fargo, and I was one of those who was like, “What? I thought these guys did Fargo!? That can’t be.” Then again, those were the first two Coen films that I had seen, since I was a teenager in the 90s. Anyhow, fast forward 10 years, and The Big Lebowski is one of my favourites of theirs. The only films I haven’t really cared for were Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.
    Burn After Reading looks like it’ll be dumb fun. It’ll have to be as bad as Intolerable Cruelty for me to not like it. And hopefully they don’t have that in them anymore.

  7. McCarthy didn’t like Tropic Thunder eithr. Maybe he shouldn’t watch comedies, since obviously he has no sense of humor of any kind.

  8. After “No Country”, it was going to be tough for the Coens to match expectations. I’m a Coen fan but I don’t buy that they don’t do this on purpose. If you make a highly successful, critical hit, you are expected to hit the next one out of the park. If you make a zany comedy, nobody can make a comparison. It’s really a safe way to make movies if you think about it.

  9. So, the reviewer questioned, “why am I not laughing.” To which I say, ’cause you’re an old fuck.!
    Comedy is the most subjective genre out there. Best advice I give before you allow yourself to be quoted is to have a reality check. Go see it with the target audience of 24-35′s.
    Then you’ll know.
    Ok?

  10. McCarthy’s always had a touch of Mr. Morality and Manners in his VARIETY reviews.
    Exhibit A, from the BURN AFTER READING piece:
    Ironically, said curtain-raiser shows the CIA actually getting something right. Career analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is shoved out, and his subsequent obscene tantrum demonstrates he has all the decorum and self-control of a 5-year-old.

  11. As much as I wanted to see No Country in the theater after catching the trailer. After seeing Burn After Reading, I kept thinking “This looks like an HBO original movie.” It’s a Netflix queue slot. They haven’t shared a single moment in the previews that makes me want to make the effort to drag my ass off the sofa and pay money to see it.

  12. “but no one should expect this reunion of George Clooney and Brad Pitt to remotely resemble an Ocean’s film commercially. ”
    I should fucking hope so. Yeah, that’s what we want, to see them romping around in expensive clothes playing grab ass.
    Did you ever notice that after the first one, those movies were… well… what’s are the words…. let’s see… a total waste of your time. Wow, Matt Damon has a funny nose! OOOOHHH, let’s see how Scott Caan handles this one. I mean does anyone care?
    What I wonder about is the blocking challenge SC poses as he’s little right? Like a hobbit or something?
    What I lament is that we had to suffer through three Oceans movies drawing down on their mojo before Clooney and Pitt could be paired in a Coen pic.

  13. The red-band trailer for this is awesome, with Spirits “I Got A Line On You” kicking in midway through. Just that musical cue tells me I’ll love this movie. Looks like Lebowski-type fun to me (bet there is another kidnapping, too).

  14. If it’s half as good as The Big Lebowski then I’m first in line.
    I’ve been working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce…

  15. George Prager [TypeKey Profile Page] says …
    “INTOLERABLE CRUELTY? I can’t remember a thing about it. It was like a Jimmy Buffet album. I guess I didn’;t like it. I didn’t like HUDSUCKER PROXY, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? or MILLER’S CROSSING either.”
    See, I agree about the first two but think Miller’s Crossing is an unabashed classic. Ain’t that the thing about movies?

  16. The only thing funny in this movie is Brad Pitt’s hair. The Coens just don’t know how to craft an outright successfull comedy. A drama like Fargo, YES, injected with satire and dark humor, where the characters are colorful, and still manage to be just that — characters. But as with BAR, Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and Intolerable Cruelty, all we’re left with is slapstick cariacatures and ridiculous situations. They’d be better off if they just stuck with crime dramas, whether it be a contemporary western like No Country For Old Men, or a bittersweet neo-noir like Blood Simple, preferrably mixed with black comedy.

  17. Wait, wait, wait, wait…what? Did you just try to say Lebowski and Raising Arizona are bad movies? Please, do us all a favor and name some comedies you like. And then go have some beers with D.Z., your ally in stupid.

  18. There’s a good article in the new Rolling Stone about how the popularity of The Big Lebowski has grown over the last 10 years. I think a lot of the Coen’s movies get better with repeat viewings, especially the comedies.

  19. As a Coen follower since Blood Simple, I liked Lebowski the first time I saw it — though not quite as much as I would grow to like it.
    Intolerable Cruelty could have been great if it hadn’t copped out. It needed a Prizzi’s Honor/War of the Roses-style merciless ending. If the existing ending is ironic in some way, I didn’t get it, and I haven’t bothered to revisit the film.
    I couldn’t bring myself to see Ladykillers. It’s only Coen film I’ve ever skipped. It seriously looked as if they were entering Carpenter/DePalma/Coppolaland. Overville.
    This one looks okay to me. Unless the reviews are overwhelmingly bad, I’ll see it.

  20. I didn’t say Raising Arizona and Lebowski are bad movies. I think they’re well-made films, and in particular, Arizona was one of my favorite films growing up. But cult classics or not, there’s still the clunky tone and cartoonish characters, and that’s what keeps them from being “great.” I hated Lebowski from the first viewing. It just tries to hard to be memorable and off-beat. You can always tell how interesting the characters in a Coen Brothers film will be — the ones who LOOK the most quirky and interesting, (or just plain bizarre), whether it be Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges in Lebowski, Hanks in Ladykillers, or Pitt in Burn, you know they’ll be the most one-dimensial, painfully written, and LEAST interesting characters in the film. Just flat out NOT FUNNY. Pitt seems to be the worst offender though, having done strikingly similar, over-the-top, NON-Coen Bros. performances in Snatch, 12 Monkeys, and Fight Club, solely for the purpose of being eccentric and desperately trying to shoot down his pretty boy persona by ugly-ing himself up. When the only thing you can remember about the film is what the characters were wearing, (garish costumes seem to be mandatory in their films), you know something ain’t right. Lebowski exists for no other reason than to give stoned straight guys a new cult classic to quote and poster to put on their dorm room walls.

  21. I just pray they’ve retired that signature move where the two characters look at each other and scream at the top of their lungs.

  22. “Arch and ungainly” describes every Coen film after The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s extraordinary how quickly the quality of their films fell away after that one; I think something inside them died after its huge failure.
    Anyway, if Wells likes Burn After Reading, then I’ll know for sure that it’s rubbish.

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