Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
We’ve all been there. You’re with your bros, ranking your favorite Coen Brothers’ movies, and things get tricky. You have 18 films with nary a stinker in sight, at least half of which could justifiably be in the top spot. Thoughts like “is there really no room for Barton Fink in my top 5?” and “can anything besides Intolerable Cruelty go in the bottom slot?” occupy your head. As someone who recently tried and failed to come up with such a daunting list, I’ve come to respect any attempt to conjure up a cogent Coen pecking order. However, one trend continues to befuddle me: the consistent underrating of the screwball spy comedy Burn After Reading.
Saddled chronologically between Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and existential parable A Serious Man, Burn After Reading came in 2008 like a bit of respite between two pillars of heavier fare. I like to think of it as the loosening of the belt between plate one and plate two of Thanksgiving dinner. At a lean 96 minutes, it’s as tightly edited and efficiently rendered as anything the Coens have committed to celluloid to this point. But most importantly, the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious no matter how many times you’ve seen it, which I mark as a true test of a great comedy.
Of all the roles in Tilda Swinton’s career, her character in Burn After Reading would likely qualify as one of the more “normal” people that she has portrayed. She plays Katie Cox, the uptight and unrelenting wife of John Malkovich’s Osbourne Cox, a CIA analyst who gets sacked in the film’s opening scene and unwittingly sets into motion the comedy of errors to come. We discover early on that Katie is pursuing an affair with the likewise married US Marshal Harry Pfarrer, played with zig-zagging charm and kookiness by George Clooney. Her plan is to divorce “Ozzie” provided Harry can break it off with his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who Katie affectionally refers to as a “cold, stuck-up bitch,” a term that Harry’s wife coincidentally uses to describe Katie.
As an unbiased observer, I may have to side with Sandy on this one. Adorn with outfits that scream “old money” and a hairstyle modeled after Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons, Katie is certainly not the most approachable person. In her mind, everyone constantly acts in an embarrassing manner and there’s nearly no situation that can’t be sped along with an exasperated “for fuck’s sake!” When her bumbling divorce attorney urges a “day of reflection” before pursuing legal action, she scoffs and quickly feigns a one-sided smile. Trapped in a storyline where characters make increasingly dubious decisions, she serves as the stern captain aboard this ship of fools.
Despite her seeming superiority, Katie is begrudgingly smitten with one of said fools. There’s something about Harry, be it his post-coital running routine or his penchant for high-quality flooring, that has captured the modicum of affection that she has to offer. That doesn’t mean she’s not willing to push him around too though. When Harry accuses Katie of forcing him to hastily split with Sandy, she assures him “I do *not* hammer!” as she punctuates each word with a pounding finger on the restaurant table. But the Coens save the funniest detail about Swinton’s character until the hour-and-twenty minute mark. The late reveal of her profession, which flies in the face of everything that we’ve come to know about her up to that point, is one of my favorite low-key punchlines in the entire film.
It’s a testament to how well-organized and tightly compiled this madcap comedy is. There’s not a single extraneous moment or wasted line and many scenes seem to rhyme with the scene previous to it. Take the opening, in which Ozzie gets ousted from his CIA position due to his alcoholism. After an outburst, which he mockingly echoes the “I have a drinking problem” accusation of his superior, we cut right to a close-up of Ozzie cracking a fresh ice tray for his first of many Cuba Libres. The Coens also intersperse the propulsive storyline with hilarious interjections by CIA higher-ups, played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who are desperately trying to untangle the messy story that is unfolding before them. Like a pair of puzzled Greek gods profanely presiding over their subjects, their scrambling to try to “resolve” the situation is a brilliantly funny way to recontextualize the labyrinthine plot.
Strange to go this long talking about Burn After Reading and not mention the gonzo performances by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as a duo of hapless gym trainers who get in way over their empty heads. Pitt alone has a litany of silly face expressions and goofy dance moves to inspire pages of reaction GIFs on his own. He had done a little comedy before and has done some comedy since but I don’t think I’ve seen Pitt cut quite as loose as he does here. But for all the “foolishness” (to borrow a term from Katie) that’s on display, Burn After Reading works as well as it does because it’s balanced by factors like the straight-laced and tightly-coiled performance by Tilda Swinton.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
Before he was Dominic, Riddick, or Groot, he was just Chris. When we think of Vin Diesel, we think of leave-your-brain-at-the-door actioneers but before the one-two punch of Pitch Black (well, technically it came out the same weekend) and The Fast and the Furious, there was 2000’s Boiler Room. Written and directed by Ben Younger, the film stars Diesel as Chris Varick, one of the many money-hungry brokers at the crooked firm J.T. Marlin. It is there that Chris and his cohorts spend their days in the titular location barking at potential clients about stock opportunities with the bravado of young bulls. The scene is strikingly similar to the one set by Martin Scorsese 13 years later in The Wolf of Wall Street, sans the midget tossing and stripper parades.
Revisiting Boiler Room after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, it almost seems quaint by comparison. Even though both are based on the Wall Street exploits of the infamous Jordan Belfort, the former uses his story as a jumping off point where the latter is more of a warts-and-all biopic. Boiler Room’s version of Belfort, Michael Brantley, played by That Thing You Do’s Tom Everett Scott, is decidedly the much more tame version of his real-life counterpoint and only pops up a few times in the film. The story instead focuses on Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis, a street-savvy college dropout who ditches his home-based unlicensed casino and climbs his way up the ladder at J.T. Marlin.
One thing I love about Boiler Room is how much it takes a page from the Glengarry Glen Ross playbook of allowing specific actors to take a scene and run with it. The most obvious example is the trio of training monologues from Ben Affleck, mirroring the same venomous intensity of Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry character. “They say money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!”, he hisses at the wide-eyed recruits after bragging about the details of his millionaire status. Later, he coaches them on his “act as if” philosophy with similarly colorful language. He’s arrogant, callous and greedy beyond measure but we can still understand the appeal of the world that he’s pitching for these young newcomers. In just a few scenes, he epitomizes the timbre of the calamitous yet vaguely enticing environment in which he inhabits.
Diesel gets his own spotlight moment, jumping over desks to beat out fellow brokers for a hot new phone lead. The chaos on the floor stops as they put his call over the speakers so they can hear the master at work. The victim on the other line is a hapless doctor who took the bait on an pharmaceutical tip and has no idea he’s about to buy 2000 shares in 2 minutes. Diesel’s line readings drip with prevaricator’s poison as he rakes this poor guy over the coals. “That great doc, if you want to miss another opportunity and watch your colleagues get rich doing clinical trials,” he says poised with a rebuttal for any objection. After he closes, he greets the applauding crowd of dazzled traders with a Diesel signature move he would re-create a year later in The Fast and the Furious: arms stretched out wide with shrugged shoulders and shit-eating smirk. “Diesel is interesting,” Ebert remarked in his review. “Something will come of him.”
Shady business practices and four-letter words aside, Boiler Room doesn’t quite dive as deeply into the same Wall Street culture vices as something like The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is largely sexless, with the exception of a sweet romance between Seth and a receptionist played by Nia Long. Thanks to some truly garish product placement, there’s more Coke addiction than coke addiction on display. And yet, the movie evokes a specific time and place quite brilliantly, even if the cringey, scratch-heavy music score by The Angel hasn’t aged quite as well as everything else. With a sound script and confident direction, Boiler Room is a high quality look inside the low quality world of chop stocks.
Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.
So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.
But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.
These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.
In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.
Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.
From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.