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Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Focus Features

Were Joel and Ethan Coen as baffled as the rest of us by the pyramid of conspiracies that was Syriana? Their new comedy, Burn After Reading, features its star, George Clooney, in a burlesque of the genre: the paranoid thriller as dumb, bloody farce. The conspirators—a spurned CIA analyst (John Malkovich), a sex-addict federal marshal (Clooney), and a pair of fitness-club employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt)—are puny stooges, their motives childishly self-centered. The MacGuffin is a nonstarter. No one but the audience gets the full (ridiculous) picture. It’s basically a one-joke movie—thin stuff. But the Coens juggle their genre tropes nimbly; they’re like birthday-party clowns for cinephiles.

From the opening, they nail the vocabulary: the camera that plunges from a satellite view of Earth to the corridors of Langley while the drums pound portentously; the behind-the-clacking-shoes shot of the agent on his way to a momentous meeting. That agent (Malkovich) soon learns that he is being demoted, and he’s sure that the grounds are unsound, that the charge he’s a total lush is a mere pretense. He will have his revenge! He will pen a memoir and expose the agency’s inner workings! On his yacht, guzzling gin and rambling into his recorder (“George Kennan, a personal friend of mine … ”), he is unaware that the net is tightening; that his chill spouse (Tilda Swinton) is having brisk, resolute sex with a government operative (Clooney) and plans to seize his assets; and that somewhere nearby, a fortyish woman (McDormand) craves liposuction badly enough to betray her country with his secrets. Hidden cameras, spies, furtive break-ins, dark sedans on characters’ tails, the Russian embassy—the espionage ingredients are all there, but layered into a uniquely Coensian fruitcake.

Burn After Reading slots neatly—perhaps too neatly—into the Coens’ body of work, in which humans act out of such narrow self-interest that they become, as the title of the brothers’ debut feature spells out, blood simple. (The Coens’ most all-seeing protagonist, Billy Bob Thornton’s barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There, is also their most impotent.) In adapting Cormac McCarthy for their sublime No Country for Old Men, they found a way to give this vision moral weight: God had left the field; chaos was ascendant; stooges died awful, meaningless deaths. They reportedly wrote Burn After Reading and No Country at the same time, back and forth, and Lordy did they let their juvenile sides run amok. Both films end on a note of resignation, but here it’s with a shrug and a little “Oh, well.”

Burn After Reading plays as if it was great fun to make—maybe more fun than to see. With his clammy air of superiority, Malkovich is an inspired choice for a disaffected spook, but the character recedes, and the movie could use more of his weird deadpan. Everyone else is way amped up. Clooney plays a man with one-tenth the charisma of, say, George Clooney—unsettled and uncentered, all twitches and starts. He and Swinton must have loved going nuts together after their tense rapport in Michael Clayton. Pitt’s pleasure in playing a sweet, muscled-up boob, who slits his eyes when he pretends to be a sinister blackmailer, is infectious—although it’s all variations on a simple theme. McDormand is fearlessly grotesque, rocketing through her bits with the single-minded dementia of Carol Burnett. Too bad her final scene is off-camera. We hear about it (during a briefing with JK Simmons as the CIA superior), but the actress has no big finish.

Neither does the movie, unless the big finish is that there’s no big finish—which is funny (I laughed) but deeply unsat- isfying. It’s worth remembering that the Coens’ comic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski, is a genre parody, too—the joke being “What if we took a convoluted, Chandleresque L.A. detective story and made the gumshoe a slacker pothead asshole?” But the brothers brought to it the full force of their loopy imagination, and the protagonist (Jeff Bridges) attained so much stature he transcended the gimmick. Burn After Reading is untranscendent, a little tired, the first Coen brothers picture on autopilot. In the words of the CIA superior, it’s “no biggie.”

You could, however, regard the film in a more positive light: that No Country was so relentlessly bleak that the Coens needed this doodle to keep their spirits aloft. In which case, burn, baby, burn.

The critic Godfrey Cheshire narrates his penetrating first film, the documentary Moving Midway, and his point of view is always right there on the surface. At the same time he’s telling a story (brilliantly), he’s thinking through it, testing its underpinnings, opening it up to history and analysis and divergent perspectives; and both strands—narrative and critical—come together with hardly a seam. (The stitches that do show are rather elegant.)

Midway is his cousins’ antebellum North Carolina slave plantation, built in 1848, which now sits at the side of a road that sees 55,000 vehicles a day. His amiable cousin, Charles Hinton Silver, has made the decision to transplant the main house to a site unsullied by modernity, and Cheshire has arrived to document that staggering feat. He loves Midway—he spent happy times under its roof, and carries in his DNA a nostalgia for the bygone era of easy southern living.

But he’s also a New York intellectual who has, he informs us at the outset, devoted himself to scrutinizing myths and the part they play in our lives, even when we’re unaware of their influence. While Midway is being moved, Cheshire ruminates on the role of the plantation in American culture, from the myth of “moonlight and magnolias” to the counter-myth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the counter-counter-myth of Birth of a Nation (which reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan) to the most enduring of all antebellum fantasias, the film of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick’s Tara, he reminds us, was a painted backdrop, and its devoted slaves might as well have been painted, too. The movie “transports us back to a lost golden age,” says Cheshire. “Of Hollywood.”

In the course of making Moving Midway, Cheshire encounters a branch of the Hinton family he never knew existed—a line that began when the man who built Midway had a son with the African-American cook. By chance, he meets a descendant of Hinton slaves, Robert Hinton, who teaches in NYU’s Africana Studies Program and grew up in an East Raleigh public housing project. It’s a measure of Cheshire’s openness that Hinton becomes not just subject but a collaborator, his bitterness subdued but palpable. Hinton admits that on some level he wishes Cheshire hadn’t been such a good fellow so he could hate him.

Cheshire doesn’t dwell too much on their (muted) resentment at having no stake in the land their ancestors worked. He wants to end on a note of reconciliation. But I wish he’d explored the alleged discomfort of some of his white cousins with their black kinfolk. I also wish he’d stepped outside America to consider cultures in which serfs were freed and their masters violently disinherited. (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard would be a useful counterweight to Gone With the Wind.) But these are quibbles: Moving Midway is thrilling. As the plantation begins its journey, composer Ahrin Mishan’s elegiac strings echo its creaking procession, and we’re suddenly inside the house, looking through the windows at the Hinton clan, as if through the eyes of the fabled ghost of longtime matriarch Mimi. It’s a haunting sequence—a moment in which we, like Cheshire, say yes and no at once to this beautiful, terrible legacy.

Alan Ball’s Towelhead is a faithful adaptation of Alicia Erian’s snappy novel about a 13-year-old mixed-race girl, Jasira (Summer Bishil), who finds herself caught between many rocks and even more hard places. Men have started sniffing her up, projecting things on her. Her mother’s boyfriend volunteers to shave her pubic hair—which results in her being shipped off to live in the Houston suburbs with her Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi), who promptly slaps her when she shows up at the breakfast table in a revealing outfit, refuses to let her use tampons (only pads), then carries on in front of her with his girlfriend. This fellow is a mass of contradictory impulses—forbidding her to date an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones), while decrying prejudice against Middle Easterners; loathing Saddam while resenting Bush Sr. (The film is set during the first Gulf War.) Jasira herself is torn in about ten different directions. Thomas turns out to be another fervent pubic-hair shaver. A grown-up neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) shares his porn magazines and she … likes them. Does she like him? When Jasira loses control of her sexuality, it’s with an irreducible mixture of erotic pleasure and victimization.

This is potentially incendiary material for the screen, but Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) cools it down and keeps it at a slight ironic distance, often presenting Jasira as a ripe sexual object. The film is superbly acted (especially by Macdissi, who makes the father a borderline hysteric), but it’s hard to know what to feel except, “How can any girl navigate this oversexualized culture?”

Can I write a review of The Women without mentioning Sex and the City? Oops, too late. Four more gal pals buck one another up while conspicuously consuming, this time in a vehicle based on the 1939 George Cukor film (from Clare Boothe Luce’s play). The original (in which, as here, no men appear) was novel for its day in playing up behind-the-scenes female bitchery. These days, the trend is toward vulnerability, and it’s fascinating trying to separate the thirties material from the mostly maladroit additions. Will you identify with Meg Ryan’s adorably tousled and unbelievably privileged Mary, whose husband is cheating with a hot-tamale perfume spritzer (Eva Mendes)? I doubt it, but Annette Bening has her moments as the women’s-mag editor, brittle but with hurting eyes. There’s a creepy subtext that might be partly intentional: As the women talk of aging and weight and plastic surgery and unfair standards of beauty, we scan the actresses’ faces for signs of work.

Burn After Reading
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen.
Focus Features. R.

Moving Midway
Directed by Godfrey Cheshire.
First Run Features. NR.

Directed by Alan Ball.
Warner Independent Pictures. R.

The Women
Directed by Diane English.
Picturehouse Entertainment. PG-13.


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