More than Just Frivolity

Joel and Ethan Coen Give Us the Antidote to the Happy Ending

Magazine Issue
November/December 2008
More than Just Frivolity

Last year, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, long the darlings of a cult audience devoted to their quirky, over-the-top output over the past 25 years, finally received mainstream acceptance and a bouquet of Oscars for No Country for Old Men.

Characteristically, it was a dark, hard-to-classify movie about the spirit of evil hovering over the deserts of the Southwest, its relentless villain deciding the fate of the other characters with a mercurial coin flip. This year, the ever-surprising Coens have shifted directions once more, whipping up Burn after Reading, an assaultive souffle of a screwball comedy designed to regularly startle us and frustrate our need for the reassuring lightness and optimism we associate with traditional comic films.

In the opening shot of Burn after Reading, the camera zooms in from outer space and comes to rest on CIA headquarters in Washington D.C., setting the tone for a film that throughout treats its characters like insignificant ants, just the way they might appear from space. The Coens don’t ask us to love these ants or find them particularly endearing—just to watch with bemused detachment at the spectacle of their absurd self-absorption and foolishness as most of them are unceremoniously and gratuitously killed off.

Why do we put up with the Coens and their macabre sense of fun and existential futility? Maybe it’s because they’re the therapeutic counterpoise to our Hollywood-created pipedreams about prevailing over any odds stacked against us and living happily ever after. The Coens like to sprinkle their films with stink bombs of heart-stopping reality, as if they were dropping hungry ferrets into our bubble bath to make sure we snap out of the lulling fairy tales we like to tell ourselves.

Of course, at some level, comedy is usually about the precarious nature of the human condition as its heroes and heroines try to navigate the unpredictable maze of life’s pitfalls. The underlying message of comedy has always been that while life is dangerous and humiliating, with a little luck, you can survive it. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen had Alan Alda explains it this way: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” In most comedies, we’re encouraged to embrace the main characters who stand in for us and our naive hopes of withstanding the intimidating forces of the universe arrayed against us. But in the Coen brothers’ movies, there’s no sunny promise of survival. As the dragon’s breath gets nearer and hotter, we’re never quite sure who’ll escape and who won’t.

The Coens have made 14 movies, mostly cast with their stock company regulars, like George Clooney, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, and of course, Frances McDormand, (a.k.a. Mrs. Joel Coen). Like Woody Allen, the Coens have managed to attract an illustrious roster of celebrated guest stars to their films, including Tom Hanks, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman, Billy Bob Thornton, Tim Robbins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In addition to their own Oscars, their films have won Oscars for McDormand as Best Actress in Fargo and Javier Bardem as Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men. Their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and composer, Carter Burwell, have also won.

With varying levels of seriousness, the Coens have sought to revive the mood and look of film noir, while often giving it a comic twist. Miller’s Crossing, about prohibition gangs, owes much to Dashiell Hammett. The Man Who Wasn’t There, in black and white, bows to James M. Cain. Fargo, a Raymond Chandleresque murder mystery, is set in Minnesota, with McDormand as a very pregnant cop, and William Macy and Steve Buscemi as some very foolish kidnappers. Barton Fink had socialist playwright John Turturro from New York seeking the common man in California and instead discovering John Goodman, a traveling salesman carrying around a human head in his hatbox.

With a great Southern country music soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? somehow combined the dusty, poverty-stricken, chain-gang spirit of Preston Sturges’s road epic, Sullivan’s Travels, with Homer’s Odyssey. The Big Lebowski, a convoluted takeoff on the indecipherable The Big Sleep, turned a stoned slacker, The Dude (Jeff Bridges,) and his bowling buddies (Goodman and Buscemi) into would-be detectives in search of a valise of money and a urine-stained rug.

Burn after Reading, the latest addition to the Coens’ genre-bending canon, concerns the CIA, a recently fired, boozy agent (John Malkovich), who seems constantly in the grip of one kind of temper tantrum or another, and his tense, child-hating pediatrician wife, Tilda (Michael Clayton) Swinton, who’s having an affair with an obsessive womanizer and exerciser played by George Clooney. Preparing to divorce her dyspeptic and newly out-of-work husband, Swinton sets the plot in motion by collecting Malkovich’s financial records on a computer disc, which somehow gets left at a suburban health club, where bone-dumb trainer, Brad Pitt, finds it and comes up with the bright idea that it contains world-shattering spy secrets.

Pitt’s sidekick, fellow trainer Frances McDormand, sees the “spy logs” as keys to money that’ll get her the plastic surgery that’ll change her life: “I’ve gotten all I can out of this body.” When Pitt proves inept at blackmailing Malkovich, McDormand takes the disc to the Russian Embassy. Meanwhile she brushes off the lovelorn overtures of her plain, dutiful, but loving boss, Richard Jenkins, and joins the line of visitors
to Clooney’s bed. Confusion swells, everyone misunderstands everyone else, and the cast graduates from divorcing or bedding one another to killing.

Even as we feel the Coens’ cool and unapologetic disdain for all these characters, the film is leavened by the cast’s evident delight in portraying its collection of misfits. As the sex and exercise addict who calms his nerves by going to bed with strangers and then ritualistically going for a run, Clooney plays hilariously against his own seductiveness and beauty. Equally memorable is Pitt as a severely hyperactive adult child who can’t be still for a moment and has to keep all body parts—arms, legs, hands, even his dyed pompadour—in constant motion.

Ultimately the Coens are daring enough to let their characters, who are too foolish to bend, go ahead and break as they’re left to their self-ordained destinies. For the brothers, there are no fairy godmothers, no superheroes flying in to save us in the nick of time. For them, life has no safety net. While seemingly indifferent to the fate of their characters, the Coens are determined that we understand that if comedy in our grim age is to be anything more than cheerful pap, it must go heavy on the vinegar and extremely light on the sugar.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.