Starring Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, J. K. Simmons, John Malkovich
Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Bruce Dern, Walter Brennan
Directed by Burt Kennedy, Written by William Bowers
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As promised, comédie bouffante makes an appearance in the Matchups.
Westerns have always been part of our movie-makers’ vocabulary, and comedy Westerns have been around practically as long as serious Westerns — the Marx Brothers weren’t the first, and I don’t know if Buster Keaton was, either. Just as each generation reinvents the Western, each generation reinvents the Western comedy. The easy-going James Garner as a city slicker with an anachronistic sense of humor ready to outwit as well as outshoot his way through any jam in a goofy gold-rush town delivers with smooth, wacky aplomb. Kids of all ages liked Support Your Local Sheriff. Here we were in a post Laugh-In, Smothers Brothers and Woody Allen and George Carlin kind of comedy world, and Burt Kennedy stitched together a broad farce with no particular politics and no particular attitude that charmed teenagers and grandparents and everybody in between. It was so successful that the director got most of the cast together again (subbing Suzanne Pleshette for Joan Hackett) for another silly Western — not a sequel, but with enough of the same attitude — called Support Your Local Gunfighter, written by James Edward Grant, in 1971. Neither one of these pictures is a great cinematic masterpiece, but they are in their own flippant and good-hearted way little landmarks in our popular culture.
Now Burn After Reading is a lot of these things, not. It is not made equally for the hip and the un-hip. We do not get a trickster hero who leads us through a maze of conventional Western follies. It is not a little landmark in popular culture, and it is not good-hearted. It is, however, a spoof of a popular genre, that storyline where somebody relatively innocent becomes unintentionally involved in somebody else’s problem on a kill-or-be-killed level. Maybe the biggest joy of this picture is getting to watch Brad Pitt make a total doofus of his character — wow, this guy can actually act! — but the levels of lamebrainedness achieved by the rest of the cast just about keep pace. I mean, if you worked for the CIA, and you advertised for dates in the local free paper, wouldn’t you think you’d take some kind of….? Nah, never mind, it’s just too stoopid. And awful. And pathetic. And hilarious. The Coen brothers give us a full-throttle comedy with this one.
*Coming up next time: Our next two movies don’t seem to have a lot in common. One is in color, the other in black and white. But, hmm… Each has a famous show-biz figure playing himself. Each is, in its way, a meditation on stardom. Tune in next time.
*Wondering how these Movie Matchups get matched up? Like to take a look at the pairings already in the books? Check out the “Movie Matchups So Far…” link in the upper righthand corner of the blog.
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