Thursday, October 9, 2008

Here Come The Regulars

The following column is reprinted from the October edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

The movies, like most of the weird and woolly universe of pop culture, ain’t all about entertainment value, or box office results, or, by gosh, even artistic merit. A whole lotta moviegoers shuffle off to the Cineplex with a touch more than snap, crackle, pop, and breasts on their respective minds. Filmgoers are sharp, they ascribe their own internal ratings, muscle up their own comparisons, connect the movie-movie dots, divide up and then judge movies by genre, and follow career trajectories. For those of us functioning as nitcrit Greek choruses, ensconced high in the balcony or cracking our knuckles behind hidden keyboards, this sort of pop cult group consciousness, providing multiple paths into the judgment garden, as we wave the magic wand and manipulate our thumbs, or assign those cheesy ratings stars, well knowing that film goers are bright enough to watch and asses a movies intent, merit, or significance outside of the context of whether their asses got itchy.
It’s virtually impossible to divine the success or failure of Woody Allen’s latest effort, Vicky Christina Barcelona or the Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest, Burn After Reading, without looking at the body of work that preceded them, particularly that most recently churned out. It’s the contention of many of those-who-know-such-things that the finest filmmakers purty much make the same film again and again, or, at the very least, tip-toe through the same themes and obsessions while consistently utilizing a plethora of repetitive stylistic flourishes, despite genre, subject, or plot.
As Woody Allen’s career has progressed he (like his unlikely doppelganger, Clint Eastwood) he has largely removed himself from his directorial efforts as an actor, and his films have taken on a decidedly autumnal feel. Most recently Allen has left his beloved New York City backgrounds behind for Europe (Match Point ’05, Scoop ’06, Cassandra’s Dream ’07), and Vicky Christina Barcelona (as the title hints) is set in Spain. It’s one part valentine to the city of Barcelona, one part a typical Allen mediation on the dueling natures of love and lust, and one part a springboard into the voluble elements that make (or break) the artistic disposition, another longtime preoccupation. It’s also one fine outing, deliciously adult and marvelously well executed.
We are in Barcelona because two young women are summering there, Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the smart but repressed one, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the bold and adventurous one. They meet head on a charming modern day Don Juan named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardeem at his most disarming), a painter and self-styled ladies ,man who offer the girls what they least suspect, “no subterfuge.” As the gentle, but rollicking comic drama plays out the inert Vicky finds observing an unfolding that replaces her with Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, burning it up), another artist and Juan’s highly temperamental ex-wife.
Allen, as his wont, sets us up with callow figureheads until the film flows evenly along and new depths are revealed or suggested by both the sureness of his narrative and his subtle but meaningful visual punctuations. Emotionally piquant scenes tumble into gag-centered bits as the sun-splashed setting (and the omniscient narrator) imbue the proceedings with a literary weightiness. What could have been a mere picturesque postcard of a film morphs into something richer and messier. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a shrewdly effusive vision, a film that offers a lovely palate and is exquisitely executed; a rich turn from one of most intriguing American filmmakers.

Those fascinatingly contradictory Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) are at it again, following their deservedly well praised and magnificently elegiac modern day western No Country for Old Men with Burn After Reading-a movie that could be no more different-an anarchic, no-holds-barred farce that ultimately cares little for its characters and seemingly even less for its audience.
The movie purports to be a spy farce bit it also tilt-and-whirls between a highly meta-screwball comedy and a not-so-sly indictment of Beltway behavior. The opening camera work features the camera’s eye honing in from above on the Virginia/DC governmental playground and quickly revealing a batch of dumb-but-officious types who seem to people that arena. The movie unfolds as quick and febrile as most of the Coens work (Raising Arizona, Fargo, the Big Lebowski), larding on the quirkiness and laying out the dumbasses, although it doesn’t ever mount the sort of organic connective tissue that allows a successful farce to be knock-out amusing.
The stellar (and extremely game) cast, including George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt), all equipped with silly names and sillier dispositions race broadly through the bang-bang scenes made of multiple double-takes, telegraphed close-ups of rage and consternation, absurd brutality, and deadpan dialogue with a look of feral determination of their faces—they work overtime in a gallant bid to make the assembled troupe of idiots seem hardy-har funny.
While there are certainly moments of temporary hilarity (particularly Brad Pitt’s moronic monkey play-although if you’ve seen the TV ads you’ve seen three-quarters of his performance), and the movie is impeccably shot by Emmanuel Lubeski and goosed up by production designer Jess Gonchos, but it still unfolds like a chilly sketchbook of flipped pages. Obviously thumbing their respective noses at Hollywood propriety, the Coen’s revert too much into the emotive distancing that has already spoiled a few of their efforts (The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers), and they created comic figurines that don’t transcend their cartoonishness, and made the greater mistake of leaving the audience out of the ol’ loop de’ Coen.
The Coens truly misstep when it comes to the treatment of brother Joel’s wife and frequent collaborator Frances McDormand. Her clueless gym employee and desperate single woman character, Linda Listzke, may hold impetuous behind the plot shenanigans (a true cinematic MacGuffin-a computer disc of little or no import) but she seems to hold no more importance that that of plot device all the while being the film’s ostensible central figure. She is more a sad and disturbing creation than a truly comic invention; as the razor-sharpen jokes fly she appears conveniently disposable, and remains a personae more off-putting than sympathetic. You can’t deny the Coen’s forthright ability to build bizarre cinematic universes or the outright talent they continually demonstrate from behind the camera and as unusually stellar editors. Burn After Reading is funny enough and marginally entertaining, it’s just not that good, a facile replica of intellectual slapstick, a movie that mocks everything but itself.

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