The Coen Brothers followed up 1996´s Oscar-nominated Fargo with 1998´s The Big Lebowski, which, if I recall correctly, opened to disappointingly muted reviews (Lebowski has since become a huge cult item, and perhaps the directors´ most-recognized work). They find themselves in a similar situation with Burn After Reading, a goofy spy comedy that has to live up to last year´s Oscar-winning drama No Country for Old Men.
A first viewing of Burn left me with a bad taste in my mouth – there are exactly two likable characters here, and the film treats them horribly – but I warmed up to it greatly on subsequent watches. Eccentric, smart, and truly funny, in that wink-wink ironic way that the directors´ ended Blood Simple with and have mastered since, the film won´t become as big a cult hit as Lebowski but deserves to be ranked alongside it (and Raising Arizona, and O Brother Where Art Thou?) as the Coens´ best comedies.
Set in Washington, D.C., a complicated story involves recently fired CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who settles down to write his memoirs (Malkovich nails the pronunciation) while on the outs with his wife. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with State Department employee Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and seeking a divorce from Osbourne. She expects Harry to leave his wife as well, but Harry doesn´t seem to be so interested in settling down, hooking up with gym employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) through an internet dating site.
A diskette containing Osbourne´s memoirs eventually ends up in the hands of goofy, bubblegum-chewing Chad (Brad Pitt), Linda´s co-worker at the gym. Thinking she can turn these valuable CIA secrets in money for much-desired plastic surgery, she and Brad devise a plan to blackmail Osbourne, under the watchful eye of their manager Ted (Richard Jenkins). They pick up some CIA attention, resulting in two pitch-perfect scenes involving J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior getting debriefed about this much-ado-about-nothing mess.
The acting in Burn After Reading is terrific across the board, but particularly good are Pitt, in one of his most memorable roles, and Malkovich, as the alcoholic, profanity-spouting ex-CIA officer with a superiority complex. Carter Burwell contributes a memorable score.
The film never quite takes itself seriously, but at the same time manages to be resonant and even a little sad. I didn´t like the way the directors´ dispatched of two of the characters (it´s in that same abrupt, matter-of-fact way that everyone seemed to hate in No Country), but knowing their fates added a little levity to subsequent viewings.
Likable, well-intentioned – but shockingly unfunny – Peyton Reed´s Yes Man represents a kind of amalgamation of Jim Carrey comedies Fun with Dick and Jane, Bruce Almighty, and, mostly, Liar, Liar. In that last film, he played a lawyer who couldn´t tell a lie; here, he plays a loan officer who can´t say ‘no´. That´s not exactly true – he can and frequently does say ‘no´ during the course of the film – but you get the gist.
Sounds good, right? Well, Carrey plays Carl Allen, a hopelessly depressed bank employee who won’t answer the phone, go out with his friends, or come to his boss´s parties. Then he attends a self-help seminar led by Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp), whose advice is to say ‘yes´ to everything. Bundley singles Carl out in the audience, gets him to reluctantly say ‘yes´ a couple times, and then Carl consciously makes a decision to start to say ‘yes´ to everything that comes his way, a decision that is reinforced by the couple times he says ‘no´ and bad things start to happen.
And you know what? His life improves, even when he does stuff that he doesn´t want to do, like give all his money to a bum. He meets a nice girl (Zooey Deschanel), goes out with his friends and becomes the life of the party, and makes good with his boss – and genuinely enjoys himself doing so. He gives out loans to everyone that comes his way, and gets rewarded with a promotion.
Here´s the problem: Liar, Liar was funny because Carrey played a character who wanted to lie, but couldn´t because of some mystical force, and the actor milked that situation for every last drop of physical comedy. In Yes Man, Carrey plays a guy who consciously makes a decision to say ‘yes´, (eventually) enjoys doing it, and his life becomes all the better for it. Where are the laughs in that? Few and far between. Forget laughs, where´s the story tension? There isn´t any, until one of the characters finds out Carl is forcing himself to say ‘yes´, and by then, it´s too little, too late.
Carrey is surprisingly restrained here, and ironically, only funny in his brief stint as the satiric, depressed, reclusive Carl as opposed to the Yes Man he becomes. Supporting cast is mostly bland, though there´s some terrific work by Rhys Darby (in his film debut) as Carrey´s boss. I chuckled here and there at this comedy (love the Mickey Rourke cake, and the Billy Jack reference was a real winner) but otherwise Yes Man is a tough sit that ultimately turns depressing. Carl´s position as a loan officer who can´t say ‘no´ is given some unintended weight by the current financial crisis.
How much can you expect from half a film? A question I asked myself before seeing Steven Soderbergh´s Che: Part One (also called The Argentine), which opens a few weeks ahead of Che: Part Two (aka The Guerilla). Now, Che played as a single 4+ hour epic at Cannes and in brief runs in NYC and LA, but has been otherwise split up for global distribution (most likely cause: the studio wants to double their profits.) There haven´t been too many other cases of this (ignoring Grindhouse´s global distribution, because that really was two films, and Kill Bill, because that certainly felt like two different films); off the top of my head I´d name Eisenstein´s Ivan the Terrible and Mizoguchi´s The 47 Ronin. And without even having seen Part Two, I´d be tempted to make the claim that Soderbergh´s Che can stand alongside those two classics.
That´s how good Part One is. First of all, it´s an incredible portrait of a worldwide icon. Che is depicted as a blank slate here, no backstory, no inner conflict or motivation, played by Benicio Del Toro not as a character but as an image. To put it another way: there aren´t many more controversial figures out there, and your individual politics may tell you Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was a hero or a butcher. You will leave Che: Part One, feeling the same exact way. Del Toro is Che (they say that a lot, don´t they? But it´s never been this fully realized), there is no acting done, the audience has no emotional investment in the character. Not what everyone wants or expects from a piece cinema, but brilliantly realized by Soderbergh and the only way this film could be done. Objective reporting the likes of which you will not find on the nightly news.
Second, Che: Part One is incredible filmmaking. The first hour is filled with so many characters that the audience spends a good amount of time playing catch-up. Once we do it´s absolutely breathtaking. I´m speaking specifically about the extended, 40-minute climax that deals with revolutionary forces led by Che taking a key Cuban town: it´s the most compelling depiction of wartime strategy I´ve seen since Patton, and the finest directorial work Soderbergh has ever done.
The main thrust of Part One involves the 1956-59 years, as Fidel Castro and a group of Cuban exiles recruit Che’s support for their planned invasion of Cuba, train soldiers, and eventually topple over Batista´s government. This is intercut with Che’s 1964 journey to New York, where he confronted the United Nations.
But Che: Part One is a film to be seen, not so much described. I urge any film lover to watch and savor it.
Please Note: the majority of this film is in Spanish, which will be subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens.
Howard Deutch, the man behind Grumpier Old Men, The Odd Couple II, and The Whole Ten Yards, has never been considered a visionary director, but My Best Friend´s Girl is easily the worst thing he´s done. An appalling alleged ‘comedy´, the film focuses on a particularly unsavory character who makes his living by taking women out on intentionally awful dates in the hopes that they’ll return to their ex-boyfriends. Cue snippy line about how this film is so intentionally bad that audiences will go running in horror to the latest PG-13 Kate Hudson rom-com.
Dane Cook stars as the central character here, appropriately named ‘Tank´, who, yes, really does make a living by taking women out on lousy dates, having hundreds of satisfied customers, or so we´re led to believe. He takes them out to unhygienic Mexican restaurants, strip clubs, or (in the film´s one good gag) he takes a religious girl to a pizza place named ‘Cheesus Crust´. He insults them repeatedly, gropes at them, makes an ass of himself, and otherwise assaults them in such an outrageous manner that any instance of this in real life would lead to a sexual harassment case. But no, this is a ‘comedy´, we´re supposed to laugh. I didn´t laugh, but I did pray that the dates wouldn´t end in violent instances of rape, because that´s where they frequently seemed to be heading.
So nice guy Dustin (Jason Biggs), who happens to be Tank´s roommate and best friend, hires Tank to win back pseudo-girlfriend Alexis (Kate Hudson), who never seemed to have any interest in Dustin in the first place. Tank takes her out, and despite him insulting her at every turn, and her being disgustingly drunk, the two fall in love. Or something like that. The plot resolves itself in such a roundabout way that even the most undemanding viewers will be left scratching their heads. Final scene: Alexis bonds with Tank while aiding him embarrass a woman on one of his lousy dates. As if this were acceptable, and the character didn´t need to be taught any lessons.
Alec Baldwin shows up in a couple scenes as Tank´s father, even more misogynistic than his son, in a new career low.
My Best Friend’s Girl may be watchable (just barely) but it´s so unpleasant you´ll be left feeling slimy for hours afterward. If you must watch, I strongly urge you to do so alone.