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Coen brothers revisit a country for odd men

In ‘Burn After Reading,' the Oscar-winning Two-Headed Director returns to satire

By Bruce Headlam
New York Times

For more than two decades the Coen brothers have made black comedies like “Blood Simple,” “Barton Fink” or “Fargo,” where – typically – somebody gets involved in a low-level criminal plot that invariably goes horribly wrong. And more often than not, somebody gets shot in the face.

Their steady progress as filmmakers contradicts the prescribed path for independent (or at least independent-minded) directors in Hollywood: Make a few small-budget movies, maybe in a genre like film noir, then climb the Hollywood pay scale until, like Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan, you're given the big-budget summer extravaganza.

What keeps filmmakers on this path – other than money – is the ability to make the kind of films they want. Joel and Ethan Coen have been able to navigate their way all along, without once setting foot on a “Batman” soundstage.

“We've never navigated anything,” said Ethan, the younger brother (by three years). “We've been lucky.”

It's not luck, however, that the two have been working in lockstep their whole Hollywood careers.

Sometimes Ethan, 50, is credited as the writer, and sometimes Joel, 53, as director. But in reality both conceive the film, write the screenplay and direct, and edit under the joint pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. You think your family is close? These guys finish each other's movies.

That may work wonderfully on the set, where actors call them the Two-Headed Director. In an interview, however, the Coens are tough sledding. Like many close brothers they have developed an almost impregnable wall of in-jokes and verbal shorthand broken up by inexplicable fits of laughter, shared references and large inaudible patches when they speak over each other in a race to the next punch line.

Their follow-up to last year's “No Country for Old Men” – which won four Academy Awards, including best picture – is “Burn After Reading” (opening in Charlotte on Friday). It's set in Washington, or rather in the gray area between the old-time Washington of Allen Dulles and the creeping suburbs that surround it. Frances McDormand, Joel's wife, plays Linda Litzke, a literally wide-eyed employee of Hardbodies Fitness gym, whose signature line, “I'm trying to reinvent myself,” underscores her belief that four expensive plastic surgeries will help her meet a better class of man on Internet dating sites.

Through a series of strained coincidences (if plots had their own Hollywood guild, “Burn After Reading” wouldn't qualify for a union card), Linda receives a computer disk containing a draft of a memoir written by Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), an angry alcoholic relic of the CIA whose wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with a federal marshal and aging Lothario (George Clooney). Linda decides to trade the memoir for cash, aided by a dim-witted personal trainer played by Brad Pitt, showing again that he's a great character actor in a leading man's body.

With its coldly satirical tone, stylized dialogue and broadly drawn characters, “Burn” will feel like familiar territory for longtime fans, a return to Coen Country for Odd Men. Is “Burn” a deliberate return to form, a step away from being Very Important Oscar-Winning Filmmakers? “It was nothing like that,” Ethan said. “To tell you the truth, we started writing down actors we wanted to work with.”

One was Richard Jenkins, who has appeared in three Coen films, starting with “The Man Who Wasn't There” in 2001.

“They're incredibly consistent, absolutely the same,” said Jenkins, who has also worked with Hollywood's other best-known brother team, Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Those filmmakers have more defined roles, he said, but the Coens are almost interchangeable on the set when working with the actors. “I can't imagine them not being together making a movie. I can't think of one without the other.”

The Two-Headed Director is one way to think about the Coens. Another – to borrow a concept from the horror movies they grew up on – is that they share the same brain, one cut crosswise. Ethan, whose first reaction to almost any question is to reject the premise out of hand with “No, that's not it” or “I don't remember,” occupies the lower half, and Joel, who tends to pause, then provide a slightly more politic answer, occupies the other.

Together the Coens, like any divided brain, have little capacity for abstraction or intellectualism, and they resist delving into the philosophy or the processes underpinning their films. Analyzing their work, Joel says, “is just not something that interests us.” Profiles of the pair frequently mention that Ethan wrote his senior thesis at Princeton on Wittgenstein – the sort of biographical detail film-studies types love – but, when asked, Ethan said he “can't honestly remember” what he wrote.

The sons of academics, they were raised in a heavily Jewish section in Minneapolis. But asking the Coens how growing up there affected their movies is like asking J.R.R. Tolkien how much time he spent in Middle-Earth before writing “The Hobbit.”

Their next film, which they're working on now, is based on their childhood, but beyond that, they give no answers to how their city, its social structure or the dialect they heard as relative outsiders affected their work. “Scandinavian. That about sums it up,” Joel said.

One explanation for their longevity is money – the lack of it. All told, the Coens have spent an estimated $340 million, the cost of a couple of summer blockbusters.

“They control their own destiny,” said Eric Fellner, co-chairman of the British production company Working Title, which has been involved in five Coen brothers films, including “Burn After Reading.” “I've talked to them many times about doing something bigger, something smaller, something more commercial. It's very hard to find anything that interests them.”

Joel said: “To be quite honest our movies have never broken any records in terms of box office. We've never operated at that level. We've never threatened the bottom line of any company that finances us. So they're happy to finance us, because the stakes are so low.”

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