Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spoof vs. Spoof

Burn After Reading

We all know how a spoof is made. You take a collection of familiar genre tropes and exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate. Then exaggerate some more. You inflate the familiar until it turns into farce. You use characters who are caricatures of familiar stereotypes, you develop a wildly improbable storyline, you put in dialog that is totally ridiculous and then have your actors deliver it with a straight face, you add all the usual sound and light effects only you turn them up a notch or two to make them more obtrusive, you pick a handful of classic scenes and parody the heck out of them. Most of all, you get rid of any and all traces of real emotion, never allowing your main characters to experience anything as laughter-killing as pain, loss or grief. And you throw in a feel-good, happy ending, where the good guys triumph and the audience is never allowed to seriously contemplate the consequences for the bad guys. And if you do this all right you get a movie that will have the audience doubled over in their seats, clutching their sides with laughter.

The trouble is, the Coen Brothers know how spoofs work too. These are the guys, after all, who made The Hudsucker Proxy. And it would seem they're bored of it. Which may be why, true to their contrary nature, they've now decided to turn all the rules of spoof-making on their head.

Because Burn After Reading isn't so much a spoof as it is an anti-spoof. The logic of the film is simple - what if, instead of making everything over-the-top, we spoofed the genre by making everything under-the-bottom? What if we deflated the storyline, filled the movie with characters who, though a little quirky, were recognizably ordinary, even banal, and ordinarily unhappy? What if instead of exaggerating the usual sound and visual effects we played them absolutely straight, perhaps even a little understated, but used them for scenes that were entirely mundane? And what if, instead of the usual good vs. bad fairy tale, we had a story about petty, not-nice people who all came to a more or less sticky end? Wouldn't that be funny?

Whether or not you find Burn After Reading funny is, I suspect, a matter of personal taste - I chuckled quite a bit through the film, but I'm a card carrying member of Misanthropy Inc., so that's not surprising. What the film undeniably is, though, is ingenious - a film that pushes the boundaries of what comedy is and what it means to spoof a genre, while managing to get in a bunch of nice little jabs at contemporary society. Compared to much of the Coen Brothers earlier work this is a fairly bland film, but the blandness feels deliberate, even ironic, as though the filmmakers were parodying their own parody. Burn After Reading isn't one of the Coens' best films [1] (I would place it somewhere between The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple), but like those films it is the product of a bizarre and relentlessly off-beat imagination that takes almost sadistic delight in subverting the familiar, and has therefore the magical quality of being both a parody and a true original.

[1] There are several problems with it - a slightly too contrived plot, some hammy acting, the Brad Pitt character is all wrong, and the ending feels too rushed.


blackmamba said...


the Brad Pitt character is all wrong

I demand an explanation..

Falstaff said...

BM: Yes, I thought you would. The explanation is that I thought the Brad Pitt character was in the wrong movie. He was such a standard issue spoof character - very much over-the-top, totally implausible. And on the whole unnecessarily so - since I think they could easily have made the story work without making him quite so stupid. The only reason I can see for making him that stupid is the whole satire on contemporary society angle, but the Coens are generally far subtler and more effective satirists than that. Take the divorce lawyer - now there's a classic Coen Bros. character for you. The Brad Pitt character is like someone you'd find in a Ben Stiller film.

blackmamba said...

a standard issue spoof character - very much over-the-top, totally implausible

not really. In fact spoofing characters like him (who are pretty commonplace) is a common way young geeks in the valley entertain themselves. The biking shorts and Tee, shuffle, bike wheel and the loud inane commentary.

Besides, it is refreshing to see a couple that can reverse gender roles so well - Angelina is the new superhero and Brad the dumb blonde.

blackmamba said...

Though I must agree the Divorce Lawyer was much more Coen Brothers. Pitt's character would have fit better in something the Apatow factory churns out in alarming frequency.

Anonymous said...

"..(I would place it somewhere between The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple), but like those films it is the product of a bizarre.."

Ok have had a very long day and am all groggy but whatever did you mean by that? As in are those two movies your most and least favorites of the Coens?

what is your pecking order of Coen Brothers movies? Just curious..

Space Bar said...

OT, but this should either make you very happy or give you nightmares. either way, there's a post in it, all ready-spelt-out.

Falstaff said...

BM: Ah, but see if the Brad Pitt character had been in California he would not have been implausible.

And the fact that he's the kind of character that young geeks in the valley can come up with on their own is precisely why he doesn't belong in a Coen Bros. film.

Obviously agree about Pitt having a stranglehold on the dumb blonde niche. Can't really comment on Jolie - I've seen maybe two movies she's been in, and the second one I only realized she was the voice of the Kung Fu fighting tiger after the movie was over.

anon: Fair question - I suppose I should have specified. Off the top of my head, I would say my list of Coen Bros. films, in descending order of preference is:

Barton Fink
Big Lebowski
Hudsucker Proxy
Raising Arizona
O Brother Where Art Thou
Blood Simple
Burn After Reading
Man Who Wasn't There
No Country for Old Men
Miller's Crossing

(I haven't seen Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, so I can't comment on those; also I have to say No Country for Old Men is probably unfairly low because I'd read the book and didn't think the movie did it justice)

SB: Nice. Though a little hard to do when 70% of your bookcase is Selected / Collected Poems.

movie buff said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements