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September 12, 2008


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Hot bodybuilders unite

Haven't seen the movie yet, but I had to chime in to take issue with your assertion that we as an audience don't "care" about Daffy Duck. I'm actually having a hard time thinking of many fictional characters that I care about *more* than Daffy Duck. All that frustration, anger, dashed hopes...has their ever been a more pathos-laden catchphrase--or phrase in general--than Daffy's exasperated "You're...despicable!"

You could've picked virtually any other classic cartoon character and your analogy would've worked. Me, I don't give two shits about Bugs; that son of a bitch always gets what he wants. But Daffy's pain is so real, and so hilarious, that it's damn near human.

Glenn Kenny

That's a valid point. Should have picked a different cartoon character. But then again, you never know whose toes you're going to step on. When I was the sci-fi columnist at TV Guide, I got an unbelievably hurt and angry note from a Huckleberry Hound fan for the mere suggestion that the then-nascent Cartoon Network's program tiltied a little heavily toward the affable, Daws-Butler-voiced dog. Damn.

But still. You see my point. There are different ways of caring and all...

Matt Miller

Question: has there been a bigger belly-laugh this year in the movies than the reveal of Harry's invention, and Linda's reaction to it?


Daffy's also kind of a dick, though. I mean, I love the guy, and I do sort of root for him, but if I ever actually had to spend any time with him I'd probably want to knock that beak right onto the other side of his head.

Aaron Hillis

I'm no hater, I just think it's slight. Smart-alecky is fine, but I found "Burn" to be the Coens' most misanthropic (I think your apocalypse line is apt, but the more overt throughline to me was that it's America's own fault, those dumb, self-centered sheep!), and I disagree that there's much difference between their decidedly serious films to their live-action-cartoonish works in characterization.

The reason is, I'm of the opinion that they haven't written a single three-dimensional character in their entire careers; fully-realized cariactures maybe (the closest they've come to realistic is Marge Gunderson, which may have more to do with McDormand's pathos than what's on the page. Take another look at their best creations -- The Dude, Barton Fink, Tom Reagan, Ed Crane -- and then try to convince me that they're people, not just personalities). To again invoke Seinfeld: "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Hell, I thought "Intolerable Cruelty" was a hoot, if also slight.


I'm looking forward to this.

Honestly, I've never viewed the Coens as deep artists, but rather showmen. Honestly, I have a variable relationship with their work; I can take or leave "Fargo", "O Brother", and especially "No Country for Editors", but try and take my copies of "The Big Lebowski" or "Raising Arizona", and violence will ensue.

This, I think, will cater to my desires quite nicely. :-)

Bruce Reid


Glenn: "No, you don't really "care" about any of these characters...."

Actually, I thought Jenkins's fate was the saddest beat in any Coen brothers film since The Big Lebowski's Donny got dragged out of the shadowy sidelines and into the bright starry lights at the heart of tragedy. His sendoff even inoculates the film from the misanthropy charge, stating the most callous interpretations of everything we've seen in Cox's loathsome, superior sneer and countering them with Jenkins's plain-spoken decency: "She's not a moron"; "No I'm not [one of the moron league]."

And if Pitt doesn't get so fully compassionate a death scene, his flashing that goofy, ingratiating grin before the bullet sprays his brains against the closet wall is a disorienting shocker.

I think the Coens have always been moral filmmakers, willing to laugh at our every foible but never skipping over the consequences and very real costs of our self-absorption. Burn After Reading no less just because it contains quite possibly the funniest dildo joke in movie history.

Glenn Kenny

Well, that's what we're here for—not just agreements, but arguments. Bruce, yours are good. Aaron, yours are too, although I'm more familiar with them via face-to-face disagreements. Do keep them coming, all.

And Bruce, the more I think about it, the more I come around to your perspective re Jenkins. Which is why, I think, the Coens cut away when they do—it just gets too real.


I liked "Burn" much, much more than I expected to, but my expectations were guarded-to-low.

One thing I think is worth mentioning is that the story stays on the rails the entire time. So many other Coen joints shift into questionable and/or disorienting areas at crucial times but this one really sticks to the map.

Glenn Kenny

@Harvey: Yes, that was what I was trying to convey when I talked about its deftness.

Glenn Kenny

@Bruce: I think you're on to something there. Really. I wanna see it again and let it sink in—although I already recognize what you're talking about—but, yeah...

Aaron Hillis

Oh no, I'm not condemning it/them at all! That was just a observation in the margins as I originally wrote to say that it was the film's slightness, not its smart-aleck 'tude, that made me Forget After Watching, as both I and Dave Fear independently arrived at. I guess I was rambling about their ever-cartoonish nature (to me, they're basically still re-working "Crimewave," if with higher sophistication) because this was the film that confirmed in my mind how I always felt about the Coens' worldview (misanthropic, which I don't think Jenkins' fate quite counteracts since he isn't given much development beyond "shy guy longing for gal who sees right through him"). I'm still a Coens fan, goddammit. And I love Daffy Duck, too. But this one didn't have the rewatchability for me that most of their oeuvre has.

Aaron Hillis

"Sees right through him" = not the right turn of phrase. Barely notices him? Oh, whatever. I think I'll just watch "Happy-Go-Lucky" for the third time...

Horace T. Bodybuilder

"When I was the sci-fi columnist for TV Guide..."

I demand more stories from this chapter in the life of Glenn Kenny.

Bruce Reid

Aaron: "...[Jenkins] isn't given much development beyond "shy guy longing for gal who sees right through him""

Jenkins may deserve the bulk of the credit--his hesitation makes clear he's unable to fool even himself--but his sad little assertion about how he's happier having dropped his divine calling for managing a gym (talk about the ways of the flesh) filled in plenty of the blanks for me.

I don't deny the Coens tend to deal in sharply drawn caricature rather than fully formed character, the better to get their parables across. But I find them delighting too much in the odd angles and rough edges of people--in Clooney's sloppy munching of his bruschetta or McDormand anxiously waiting to see which of her dates will laugh at a movie--to mark them as misanthropes. Though certainly I get where the argument comes from. Just like I disagree but get where it comes from when people use it against Leigh.

Glenn Kenny

@Aaron, right on on your glomming on to the "Crime Wave" continuity. What burns my gut are concern trolls—who wouldn't know "Crime Wave" from a hole in the ground—disguising themselves as film critics and boo-hooing about the Coen's misanthropy (I mean Dana Stevens, not Manohla Dargis, although I disagree vigorously with M.D.). And I have to say I'm a little disappointed that a critic as astute as David Fear pulled out the completly lame "this is what they do after they've won an Oscar?" complaint. As if the Coens should give 2/16ths of a flying fuck. Come on.

Dan Coyle

I haven't seen the film yet, but any movie with David Rasche in it has to be worth watching. SLEDGEHAMMER NATION UNITE, YO!


I'm with Glenn in thinking this film is anything but slight, and I'd actually argue -- and fully intend to argue, if I ever find a spare couple of hours in this TIFF/NYFF maelstrom -- that it's even more probing and incisive than No Country. Am I the only one who sees the whole thing as an allegory for how the Bush admin got us into Iraq?


Also, is "concern trolls" an original phrase? 'Cause it's so awesome. I coined "soup kitchen cinema" to describe the movies they tend to champion.


"Question: has there been a bigger belly-laugh this year in the movies than the reveal of Harry's invention, and Linda's reaction to it?"

How about the reveal of what Katie (Tilda Swinton) does for a living, and her use of 'good cop/bad cop' in a way that's totally of a piece with the rest of the film?


@hotbodybuildersunite (hee): I care more about Wile E. Coyote than I do about Daffy Duck. Or almost anyone.


Fair enough, Glenn...frankly, the film would be a disappointment regardless of whether (a) they'd won an Oscar or not for No Country for Old Men and (b) whatever movie this happened to have followed. But I do think that, having just seen what they can do when they're really, really on their game, the sheer WTF?-ness of Burn After Reading feels particularly galling. It's less "this is what they do after they win an Oscar?" than the pressure drop from such heights to such lazy depths.

But hey, I'm not going to defend what I wrote; I stand by the review and the sentiments within it. Sorry you were disappointed (I'll try harder next time) and thanks for "astute," as opposed to "asnine," "atrocious" or "abhorrent." Just count yourself that you didn't see the first draft, in which I detailed several afternoonn dalliances with hot bodybuilders.

Glenn Kenny

@md'a—I wish I could take credit for "concern troll," but alas the phrase is an already venerated Internet Tradition.

@ fear—You know I got nothin' but love for you. Sing it with me, my friend: "There's only you and me, and we just disagree."

Craig Kennedy

Now that the laughter is wearing off (and yes, I laughed almost all the way through this one), the film is starting to sink in.

Two of my favorite moments: Richard Jenkins' short/sharp intake of breath after he's just been reamed by the love of his life and Clooney slapping his belly like George C. Scott coming out of the can in Strangelove.

Following Glenn's train of thought that this is a stylistic cousin of Raising Arizona, I think it's also thematically related. Linda's single-minded determination to get what she wants despite the consequences for everyone involved is reminiscent of Hi and Ed's little baby caper. Quite the opposite really of The Dude's desire to be left in peace to drink his white Russians, roll with the boys and have the occasional acid flashback.

I loved this movie right away, and I'm loving it even more now that it's beginning to resonate.


I haven't seen anyone comment yet on Carter Burwell's score for the film-- there are no comedic music cues used at all in this film; the music is tense and suspenseful, like a Tony Scott/Ridley Scott thriller. In fact, the first 20-minutes play like an ultra-serious thriller. But I wonder if the lack of formal comedic cues in the film is what has led some to not think this "comedy" is actually very funny. Aside from the dialogue and perhaps Brad Pitt's dancing and dopey facial expressions, BURN AFTER READING plays formally like a drama.

Craig Kennedy

That's a great point Geoff. Burwell's straight-faced score and Lubezki's slick cinematography play like a serious espionage thriller, which makes the absurd caperings of the cast (played as though they don't know they're being funny) even more hilarious if you're tuned in to it.

That's a great thought though about why more people aren't finding this movie more openly funny. I bet they will on repeated viewings.

Glenn Kenny

Yes, Burwell's score, which seems to take itself very seriously, is indeed excellent. A very accomplished pastiche/parody element in a film that is not wholly a pastiche or parody. One of the things I've always loved about the Coens' movies is the freedom they take for granted, the refusal to let a false sense of consistency become their hobgoblin. In some sense, "Burn" is a lampoon of a spy picture, and in other senses, not that at all. "The film opens and closes with a Google Maps view of the Earth that has already become a cinematic cliché," Dargis notes in her review. Well, yes. Exactly.

Craig Kennedy

I'm just now starting to read what other people have written about it and haven't gotten to Dargis yet. I'm still kind of bathing in the warm glow of my own enjoyment, I don't want to start hearing the same old criticisms of the Coens.

I have to say though, when the movie ended I was thinking "well, this was great but it sure isn't going to inspire the kinds of ruminations that kept No Country going for months," but now I'm beginning to think I was wrong. The stuff you've written here and, somewhat surprisingly, Jeff Wells' own comments have opened the film up for me.

This is going to be fun.


Hate to be a pedant, but wasn't this shot before they won the Oscars?

Glenn Kenny

Indeed it was. And a very smooth shoot it was. My Lovely Wife's old roommate, a good friend of ours, was one of the location people, and said it was by far the most organized picture he's ever worked on (and he's worked on a bunch, including a "Bourne"). Done by 4 p.m. pretty much every day.

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