Trading Places: The prince’s nurture vs. the pauper’s nature

John Landis’ Trading Places is remarkably unafraid to take a cold hard look at racism, privilege, and inequality. It still retains the power to incite gasps and raise eyebrows, decades after release.

With two major caveats, Trading Places is one of my personal favorite comedies. Caveat one: for a movie with guts enough to deal so directly with such heated issues, it is oblivious to its own sexism. The only real female character is a sorely underwritten hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype (poor Jamie Lee Curtis). Caveat two: Dan Aykroyd’s blackface bit is excruciatingly cringeworthy, and nearly upends the film’s entire context of interrogating racism. For shame, everyone involved.

With these reservations out of the way: wow! Trading Places is as scathingly relevant now as in 1983. Rapacious investor siblings Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) disagree over whether their elevated social status is due to nature or nurture. They stage a Mark Twain-esque scenario, pitting their Prince (golden boy Aykroyd) against a Pauper (small-time con artist Eddie Murphy). Needless to say, their little social experiment is just as rooted in race as it is in class. The Duke’ sole concession to equality is that they view both pawns with contempt.

The Duke brothers represent the worst of American capitalism: the breed of parasitic short-term opportunists leeching off the economy that Tom Wolfe would satirize as self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” in his decade-defining novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Terrifyingly, Landis could count on contemporary audiences automatically intuiting them as villains, but the same isn’t true today. In 2016 and 2018, enough Americans voted for a new batch of overtly racist predatory capitalists to grant them the power of the White House and Senate.

Trading Places is indebted to the films of Preston Sturges, but it also brings to mind Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It has its own problematic aspects that haven’t aged well (such as dim-witted female characters with the sole aim of finding wealthy husbands), but is surprisingly progressive with its ambivalent attitudes on gender and sexuality. More obviously, Trading Places shares with Some Like it Hot a propensity to break the fourth wall. Eddie Murphy’s classic spit-take to the “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich” line is, for my money, one of the funniest moments in movie history.

four out of five stars

Monty Python throws a farewell party for themselves in “Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go”

Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.

But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.

I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.

At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the Noël Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.

Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:

  • 5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
  • 15% bodily fluids & noises
  • 20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
  • 50% exaggerated regional accents
  • 10% gay men talking and walking funny

Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.

Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.

The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).

Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.

Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.

But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.

two out of five stars

The Time Has Come to Act: The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors

“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.

An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors

“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

Sally Hawkins Finds a New Opportunity in Every Setback in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her (she’s a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher). Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.

In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her. Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.

Happy-Go-Lucky
You’re driving me mad! See what I did there? No? Too easy?

Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.

Most narratives are usually structured around a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:

  1. Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
  2. Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
  3. Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).
Happy-Go-Lucky
latitude, longitude, positive attitude

While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.

On the Run from Johnny Law in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s feature debut is based on their 1992 short film of the same name. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bottle Rocket is Anderson’s ur text. His signature style is already fully present: meticulously constructed of primary colors, written in torrents of words, and shot perpendicularly against exacting mise en scène. The Royal Tenebaums is the only of Anderson’s films to feature parents as featured characters throughout, but Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and Bottle Rocket all concern misfit siblings with largely absent parents. Like the Tenenbaums and the Whitmans (of The Darjeeling Limited), the Adams brothers are privileged yet seem to possess nothing of their own.

Dignan (Owen Wilson) throws in his lot with local crook Mr. Henry (James Caan), who proves both a bad boss and poor father substitute. Dignan forms an amateur gang of sorts with brother Anthony (Luke Wilson) – an aimless young man suffering from self-diagnosed “exhaustion,” and their pushover friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) – of use mostly because he has access to a car. Every detail of Dignan’s grand scheme for his life is plotted out in the handwritten manifesto “75-Year Plan – Notes Re: Careers.” As he tells Anthony, “I think we both respond well to structure.”

Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket
Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket. “On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”

They feel the urge to steal (from a chain book store, hilariously, and even from their own parents’ home), not so much for money itself but to enable their fantasy of living independently on the road. Their dream is that being on the lam would provide the excitement they imagine their lives lack. But Dignan’s precise vision of the future is disrupted at every turn. The most cataclysmic event of all is when the romantic Anthony becomes smitten with motel maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos), and he gives up most of their illgotten spoils to help her. Dignan’s own future hasn’t factored in love; eventually he realizes he must set off on his own to find his destiny.

The 2007 Criterion Collection edition reprints a 1999 appreciation by producer James L. Brooks, in which he describes how the neophyte filmmakers had little notion of how movies are actually written and made, especially any aspect thereof involving creative compromise. Their first draft was reportedly so wordy that a simple table reading proved epic:

the longest entertainment known to man, beating Wagner’s Ring cycle before we reached the halfway point of the reading. By the time we approached the last scene, all the water pitchers had been emptied, yet voices still rasped from overuse, and there were people in the room showing the physical signs of starvation.

The script was deemed unfilmable, beginning a long process of urging Anderson and Wilson to cut material they held dear, and they held everything dear. The movie still seemed doomed even after successfully shooting a workable script. When early cuts tested poorly before audiences, Brooks tried to console Anderson and Wilson by telling them that early feedback for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also poor, but it was saved by the music and a memorable logo. Indeed, Brooks credits the score by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo for helping make the film work.

James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket
James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket. “This seems like a nice soirée.”

James Caan only worked on the film for three days, and still seems bemused by the whole thing. But the result has proven a cult classic, and launched the careers of not only Anderson but also the Wilson brothers. The Criterion Collection edition also includes Martin Scorcese’s 2000 appreciation from Esquire, in which he credits Anderson with a rare, true affection for his characters. Dignan’s belief in his imperviousness is the flm’s “transcendent moment”: “they’ll never catch me, man, ’cause I’m fucking innocent.”

All life’s a play in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s personal life, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man!) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and one of our favorites, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Here’s a theory to explain Hazel’s enigmatic burning house: could it be an allusion to the Talking Heads song “Love -> Building on Fire”? I’m being serious here…

But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film. I’m giving it the full five-star Dork Report rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Björk’s Bachelorette (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, Bachelorette recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:

Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New York
Hope Davis, as the shrinkest with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.

Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bachelorette, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York
A scene from Synecdoche, New York, starring Samantha Morton as Hazel, Emily Watson as Tammy as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, and Tom Noonan as Sammy as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgängers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself. Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.

The Coen Brothers confound expectations, as usual, with Burn After Reading

Although every Coen Brothers film is unmistakably theirs alone (can the Auteur Theory apply to more than one person at once?), Joel and Ethan have a reputation for rarely making the films audiences want or expect from them at any given time. After Fargo, when everybody wanted another snowy midwestern noir, Joel and Ethan gave the world The Big Lebowski instead. After a recent string of genre experiments like the Hepburn & Tracy-esque romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty and a remake of Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, the Coens surprised everybody yet again with the dead-serious nailbiter No Country for Old Men. And, perhaps because they just can’t help themselves, they give us whiplash all over again with Burn After Reading.

George Clooney and Francis McDormand in Burn After Reading
Clooney and McDormand give this movie two thumbs up

Ostensibly another caper comedy like The Big Lebowsi, Burn After Reading is actually more amusing than hilarious. The characters are a peculiar kind of stupid common in Coen films: unaware of their limitations, yet maniacally driven. But the mischievous Coens undermine the light entertainment value of the film by punctuating the convoluted noirish plot and seemingly light tone with scenes of extreme violence.

John Malkovich in Burn After Reading
John Malkovich being John Malkovich

At the time, The Big Lebowski featured many of the Coens’ repertory players (John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro). In contrast, Burn After Reading sports the marquee names Clooney and Pitt, perhaps giving it more attention than it can hold. But its biggest hindrance to joining the ranks of the best of the Coen Brothers is that it lacks a highly memorable (and quotable) character like H.I., Marge, or The Dude.

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading
Brad Pitt is in possession of, as they say in movies like this, certain documents

The Dude burns one on the way over in The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski

In 1998, when all the world wanted from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen was another Fargo, they got The Big Lebowski instead. The Coens recently repeated this trick by following up another masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, with the happy-go-lucky Burn After Reading. This blog wonders if this compulsion is by design or if the Coens just can’t help themselves.

Viewed with some puzzlement upon release, The Big Lebowski is now the subject of pop art, annual conventions, and action figures. The farcical film noir is ultimately an extended “wrong man accused” pastiche in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, but The Coen Brothers infuse it with their trademark anarchic spirit and populate it with characters with low (or otherwise chemically impaired) I.Q.

The Big Lebowski
We don’t roll on Shabbos

The film’s 10th anniversary was recently celebrated in a Rolling Stone feature article, The Decade of the Dude by Andy Greene. John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott reveal a wealth of anecdotes and all seem genuinely delighted at the film’s cult status. Goodman, however, alludes to having had a kind of falling out with the Coens after Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The article also states that The Coen Brothers decline to discuss the The Big Lebowski at all anymore, for unspecified reasons. However, the DVD edition screened by this blog includes the original 1998 contemporary electronic press kit including an interview with the Coen Brothers in which they gamely discuss the production (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as writer, but in truth they have always shared the duties equally). The DVD also provides a peek at cinematographer Roger Deakins’ spectacular fantasy sequences and unique bowling footage actualized with a motorized camera capable of running up to 20 M.P.H.

Jeff Bridges reveals the extent of his actorly craft in preparing for each scene: he would simply ask The Coens, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?” Most often, the answer was yes, so he would rub his eyes to approximate the degree of redness appropriate, and proceed. The Dude copes with the trials and tribulations of life with the motto “The Dude abides,” but the circumstances in which he finds himself during this misadventure leave him less in a state of zen than one of paranoia. No doubt a lifetime of pot abuse has harshed his mellow somewhat.

The Big Lebowski
You don’t &$%# with the Jesus!

Despite having only barely more than a cameo appearance, John Turturro nearly steals the movie with the unforgettable character Jesus Quintana (that’s “Jesus” with a hard “J”), a sexual predator and cocksure bowler. The Coens speak about wanting to write a Latino character for Turturro, but where did the rest of his outrageous characterization come from? Did they just wind Turturro up and let him go? Other notable cameos include David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Potter) as a giggling associate of Maude (Moore), and musicians Aimee Mann and Flea as hapless nihilists.

De Niro and Brodin are somewhere between Toledo and Cleveland in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run

Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is an appealingly loose comedy built on a solid premise. It’s a classic, almost clichéd Hollywood scenario: Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is one of the world’s last honest cops, rewarded for his integrity by divorce and demotion to the humiliating (and dangerous) level of bounty hunter. His handler Eddie Moscone (Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano) raises the lucrative prospect of One Last Job: to escort chief witness Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) in a federal mob case across the country, pursued both by the feds (led by the imposing and perpetually aggrieved Yaphet Kotto) and the mob (the ageless Dennis Farina) alike.

Midnight Run
It’s for you

Walsh has personal business with mob boss Serrano, and so the task quickly becomes a journey of the soul for him. The template is 3:10 to Yuma: an intelligent, articulate “bad guy” travels with gruff and serious “good guy” with money problems and deep-seated resentment for being punished for his honesty. But all this is beside the point. The true pleasure of the movie, and the cause of its continued cult appeal, is all in the actors’ interplay. Grodin has all the hilarious dialog, much of it with the feel of improvisation. In contrast, De Niro seems only equipped to continually retort with “Shut the fuck up,” perhaps by choice to be true to his character as opposed to a failure of creativity. Why has Grodin been in so few movies?

Midnight Run
Yaphet Kotto does not suffer fools lightly

Also of interest is an early score by Danny Elfman, later to gain a reputation for whimsical fantasy music for Tim Burton and The Simpsons. Brest, the director of Beverly Hills Cop, stages a massive multi-car chase approaching the absurdly funny levels of The Blues Brothers.

Midnight Run is actually not all that funny a comedy, not that thrilling a thriller, nor that penetrating a character study. But it is nevertheless great fun to watch, and crying out for a sequel.


Must read: the original Midnight Run shooting script

Harold & Kumar drop LSD with the NPH in Escape From Guantanamo Bay

On the way to a hoped-for idyll in their spiritual home Amsterdam, our two beloved stoners Harold and Kumar take unintended detours through Cuba (as collateral damage in the War on Terror), Florida (where they drop trou’ for a “bottomless” party), Alabama (rudely interrupting a Klu Klux Klan klatsch), and Texas (whereupon they pass the Mary Jane with the worst George W. Bush impersonator ever).

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
Harold and Kumar are the best of buds. Get it? “Buds”? Oh, never mind…

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the 21st Century’s answer to Cheech and Chong, and their first film was a rather enjoyable, freewheeling affair that reveled in its absurdist plot twists and even aided in making Neil Patrick Harris a star again, deservedly. But this sequel unfortunately wastes too much time pairing Harold and Kumar off with their difficult-to-distinguish brunette love interests. It’s as if, like Talladega Nights, it wants to toy with heterosexual “gay panic” humor, but chickens out; the implication is that Harold and Kumar are actually more in love with each other than anybody else, or even pot.