Ruthie Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle was telling me yesterday about watching The Brothers Bloom the other day and getting more and more irritated at this guy sitting a seat or two away who wouldn’t stop laughing at the damn thing. He was having a great time. Every line that was intended to be wryly amusing or half-funny, he howled at.
After a while Stein started giving him death-ray looks. Her thoughts (which she didn’t express in words at the time) were in the general ballpark of “what the fuck are you laughing at? Will you stop it please? What’s wrong with you?”
I park my car in Stein’s garage. I’ve been there. I hate people who laugh uproariously at marginally funny movies. A couple of weeks ago a guy sitting behind me at a screening of Mike Leigh‘s Happy-Go-Lucky wouldn’t stop with the fucking giggles, and I had to restrain myself from turning around and saying, “I’m sorry but could you give it a rest? Please?”
I rolled with Steven Soderbergh‘s 260-minute Che without ever getting bored or sleepy or taking a bathroom break. But for some reason a little voice in my chest went “uh-oh” when I noticed the running time for Spike Lee‘s Miracle at St. Anna, which screens tomorrow morning at 11.
Ed Harris‘s Appaloosa is just okay. No, that sounds dimissive. It’s a decent…too negative again. It’s a solid piece of work — how’s that? But dammit, the words “not half bad” keep creeping into my head, which sounds, I realize, like damnation with faint praise. I don’t mean to put it down; I was never in serious pain. But ten minutes in I knew this was no Open Range, which in my book (and the books of many others) is the finest, best-written and most believably recreated western since Unforgiven.
I would put Appaloosa on the level of 3:10 to Yuma, more or less. In fact, I would call it a tiny bit better than that James Mangold western. There are no gay gunslingers (i.e., psychos wearing high-style leather waistcoats with buttons in the back) with makeup dirt caked onto their face. And there are no excessive fetishistic shootouts in which 89 guys get killed. It’s got a nice modest feel to it. And it’s nicely shot, very well acted (particularly by Harris, Viggo Mortensen and bad-guy Jeremy Irons) and “engaging” as far as it goes.
But it’s basically a low-key buddy movie, and as such goes in for charm and humor too much for my taste. No offense but I don’t want to be “entertained” when I’m watching a western — I want to feel it, believe it, smell the horseshit, feel the saddle ache in my ass and sense the wind on my face. Plus it doesn’t have a resounding theme (or not one that I could identify). The theme, such as it is, is basically “women come and go, and even when they come you can’t trust them. Your buddy watching your back is all that really matters in the end.”
It’s fine, it moves along, etc. I can imagine some people going to this thing and loving it. The crowd I saw it with in the Cumberland was laughing a good deal. Well, from time to time. But should you laugh at the jokes in a western? This isn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It doesn’t have that dynamic or the visual stylishens or the movie-star panache. It’s Harris and Mortensen, after all. I wish Irons could have played a good guy. He speaks with his English accent, thank God.
I have to quit again for a 5:30 pm screening upstairs. O’Horten, I’m thinking. And then I’ll head downtown for the public showing of The Burning Plain, and then a chat with director-writer Guillermo Arriaga (who’s leaving town tomorrow for some reason) and then the Burn After Reading party.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney outside Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel on Avenue Road — Friday, 9.5, 3:05 pm. Mulroney was the 18th Prime Minister of Canada from 9.17.84 to 6.25.93.
One-bedroom apartment fire and seven fire trucks across from the Four Seasons, happening the same moment as the Mulroney photo-op.
Either you get, agree with and derive enormous delight from dry misanthropic humor…or you don’t. Either way, you certainly can’t argue with the fact that while Joel and Ethan Coen have a lot more up their sleeves than just this, when they’re in the mood to dispense their extremely low opinion of human behavior, they are masters of the form. Nobody knows from dry, diseased and delectably deadpan like these guys. It’s in their bones and their blood.
And it’s the genius of Burn After Reading, their latest, to offer another serving in a way that may seem slight or irksome to some, but it is in fact — I mean this — a major satirical meditation about everything that is empty, wanting, sad and hilariously absurd in these united and delusional states of America.
I didn’t laugh all that much, but I loved every minute of this thing. Relished it. I sat there with a bemused smile on my face, chortling every now and then but with all kinds of “yeah, right, exactly, perfect, hah!” stuff happening in my head.
The plot shenanigans are for the popcorn eaters to chew on and the disgruntled critics to bitch about; the meat and marrow of Burn After Reading is contained in the ample and delicious margins. The atmosphere, the asshole-ish line deliveries, the mocking tone, the wacked particulars, and those looks of fear, loneliness, concrete stupidity and desperation. If you look at it this way, the movie is a feast.
If you’re on the misanthrope boat, this half-espionage, half-comedy of modern fools and manners is about as good as this sort of thing gets. But you have to forget about “laughing.” (Which is overrated anyway, despite what Joel McCrea‘s John L. Sullivan might have thought.) Because this movie is about much more than that.
You can sit there and eat your popcorn and take it as a sardonic goofball spy movie crossed with a comedy of errors that doesn’t add up to much, and that’s fine. But the meanest and cruelest jokes aren’t just the funniest, as Mort Sahl once said — they’re also the most thoughtful.
Burn After Reading is not a movie for the ages, but a modest and dead-perfect geiger-counter reading of what ails those desperate, constantly itchy and perturbed Americans in the comfortable urban areas who can’t help but shoot themselves, attack others, make mad lunges at quick money and temporal erotic satisfaction. Prisoners of their swollen egos and limited intelligence. Strivers who must (they feel) have more, who can’t be satisfied or serene, who eat the right foods, belong to health clubs, drink too much, scheme and claw too much and are natural-born comedians in the eyes of God.
Which is how Burn After Reading starts and ends, by the way — from the point of view of a sad, bemused and occasionally chuckling cosmic super-being who exists somewhere above the earth.
That’s all I have time to say because I have to get to a screening of The Appaloosa. I’ll add to this sometime in the late afternnoon. I didn’t even mention the cast — George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Frances McDomand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche — or the beautiful note-perfect ending. But them’s the breaks when you’re doing four movies a day plus filing and parties and random chit-chats on the street.
Today’s Toronto rundown: Joel and Ethan Coen‘s Burn After Reading at 9 am, which will necessitate blowing off a 9:30 screening of The Secret Life of Bees and a 9:45 screening of Waltz With Bashir (which I missed in Cannes). A writing period from 11 to 12:30 (which will necessitate not seeing Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) follows, and then comes Ed Harris‘s Appaloosa at 1 pm. (I saw Rachel Getting Married in Los Angeles so missing the 1:45 screening of this Jonathan Demme film is of no concern.)
Then comes a battle between Witch Hunt and O’Horten at 5 and 5:30, respectively. (I’ll be thinking and deciding right up to the showtimes.) The last film of the day is a public showing of Guillermo Arriaga‘s The Burning Plain, which will be followed by a chat with Arriaga and then, most likely, a party or two.