Someone — I’m not going to stoop to naming names, you understand — once told me it was impossible to create a list of the best Coen brothers films. That was the day, I believe, that some vandal ripped the “I” section from my Merriam-Webster because I didn’t know the meaning of the word impossible.*
And yet here I am four months and a Merriam-Webster Online bookmark later whipping up another “best of” Coens list. Is this ambitious, hornery, maddeningly persistent or simply a clear sign that I am squirrelbait? Take a gander at this list and you be the judges…
1. Loren Visser — Villainy, thy name is Loren. There’s no arguing that the Coens are dark, but they plumbed new psyche depths to dream up with a bad guy as slithery and skin-crawlingly creepy as Loren Visser, the “Blood Simple” gumshoe/gunman-for-hire. The never-better M. Emmet Walsh hits us with a scary truth: Spend all your time worrying about the immoral villains and the amoral ones will get you every time.
2. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski — Does it get more original than a stoner bowler (Jeff Bridges) who sucks down White Russians like oxygen, knows a guy who can get you a toe (don’t ask how), indulges his acid flashbacks for fun and waxes poetic about the harmonizing powers of his living room rug? Actually, maybe it does. See No. 4.
3. Marge Gunderson — Just call her the Columbo of Brainerd, Minnesota. Sure, those ”dern tootin’” remarks or that friendly, warm-as-pie Minnesota accent might lead you to believe Marge Gunderson’s a bricks short of a load, but don’t be fooled; the way the divine Frances McDormand plays her, she’s smart as a whip, persistent to a fault and keenly observant. She gets her man, alright, and she’ll do it without getting a drop of sweat on her Arby’s roast beef-n-cheese.
4. Jesus the Bowler — The key to a bang-on cameo is picking an actor who can create an entire character out of little more than thin air. This, I’m convinced, is why John Turturro was put on this Earth: to play The Dude’s arch nemesis Jesus the Bowler, a legend in his own hairnet whose signature line — hell, his only line — boldly and creatively pairs the words “fuck” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. Mark it, dudes, as one of the best cameos. Ever.
5. Chad Feldheimer — For all its faults, “Burn After Reading” did one thing very, very right: It introduced to the world to Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a frosted tips-sporting, gum-popping buffoon with a passion for physical fitness and not one thought — deep or otherwise — in his puny little pea brain. Pitt dives head-long into Chad’s cheerful idiocy, and the end result is a character as unforgettable as he is funny.
6. Ed Crane — It’s an unspoken rule of film (and of life, really): The quiet ones are far more interesting than the ones who never stop flapping their gums. Nowhere is this more crystal clear than the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” narrated by unwitting barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Ed’s taciturn as hell, a self-described ghost in his own life, but Thornton lends him enough laconic humor to make him a sympathetic Everyman.
7. H.I. McDunnough — Joel and Ethan, they have a way of writing characters who look and seem simple-minded, maybe even dumb. Then they open their mouths, and out flow rivers of shocking wisdom and insights. And sprung criminal H.I. McDunnough, trying to make a new life with his wife (Holly Hunter), is nothing if not insightful. It’s observations like “sometimes it’s a hard world for small things” make “Raising Arizona” as much a character study as it is a riotously funny screwball comedy.
8. Freddy Reidenschneider — If there’s one thing Joel and Ethan know, it’s that names make or break a character. Why else would they have decided to take a boastful, self-important lawyer (the superb Tony Shaloub) and give him a name like “Freddy Reidenschneider”? Hardly rolls of the tongue very sweetly, does it? Instead it suggests an air of blustering confidence, the kind only a character who’s decided to cultivate a personality more outrageous than his last name can have. And in Shaloub’s capable hands, Mr. Reidenschneider is quite a character, indeed.
9. Jerry Lundergaard — For every foolproof plan there’s a fool behind it believing he’s 17 times smarter and cooler than he actually is. In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a schemer so comically and tragically inept at scheming that he can’t call the perps to end his swirling-down-the-john plan because he doesn’t have their phone number. Yikes. Then he thinks he can finesse his way out of an interrogation by the untrickable Marge Gunderson. What theheckya thinkin’ there, Jer?
10. Tom Reagan – In every Coen brothers film there’s a character who’s hard as nails, who has cold, steely eyes sharp enough to cut you right in two and not enough humanity to stitch you back together. In “Miller’s Crossing,” a Prohibition-era mob thriller, that man is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). He has made being “a son of a bitch a point of pride,” someone notes, and that makes him one tough guy. Then there’s the fact that Gabriel Byrne plays him. And everyone knows that Gabriel Byrne? Yeah, he’s just plain cool.
*Shameless “Zoolander” reference
A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.
Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.
Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre ”Intolerable Cruelty.”
Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”
Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.
Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.
Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)
Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.
How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.