Coen brothers tell press to burn after screening

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and Brad Pitt on the set of "Burn After Reading."
Focus Features
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and Brad Pitt on the set of “Burn After Reading.”

TORONTO — The North American premiere of the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading” has shut down traffic on several streets near Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto. The newly Oscar-anointed siblings from St. Louis Park do indeed have their fans, you betcha — although the hundreds of shrieking stargazers this warm Friday night are out mainly in hopes of glimpsing one Brad Pitt, who in the Coens’ farce plays a slow-witted D.C. gym instructor with ridiculously spiked hair and an absurd scheme to extort cash from John Malkovich’s comically infuriated CIA analyst.

“No real introduction is needed for the Coens,” says the Toronto Film Festival’s Piers Handling from the Thomson stage, seemingly because, unlike Pitt, the brothers are well known not to surprise or otherwise charm a crowd except when they’re showing one of their movies — and, as anyone who has seen “The Ladykillers” could attest, not necessarily then. Before bringing out Pitt, Malkovich, and costar Tilda Swinton, Joel Coen — the talkative one of the writer-directors by comparison — offers a grand total of three comments from the stage. “Thank you very much. Thank you for having us here this evening. We hope you enjoy the movie.”

No shame in such tightlipped demeanor from internationally renowned artists, but it does apparently bear mention again, as the brothers’ imminent return to Minnesota for the shooting of another movie, “A Simple Man,” has inspired countless hopes, most or all of them futile, that the pair will come and speak at this or that local event, that they’ll lend themselves to this or that indie cinema rescue mission, that they’ll graciously entertain critics and bloggers and other scribes from here to Fargo. I’m reminded of Joan Baez’s common line to fans of another reclusive ex-Minnesotan when they ask her if “Bob” will be appearing at the latest charity fundraiser or protest march. “Of course he won’t be there! Bob Dylan has never come to those things, don’t you know?”

Their slightest work since ‘Intolerable Cruelty’
Though the Coens themselves would undoubtedly say “it’s only a movie,” as indeed they did more than once at a hotel press conference after the big premiere, “Burn After Reading” — their slightest work since “Intolerable Cruelty” — looks to this critic like autobiography: a brazen assertion of the filmmakers’ prerogative to deliver greatness only when they feel like it, and the cinematic equivalent of Dylan’s aggressively tired “Self-Portrait” when the mood suits.

Not only the title of this emphatically lackadaisical slapstick “comedy” urges immediate disposal of the contents. Everyone in the cast has a severe tic or several, none terribly funny save for the on again/off again facial twitches of George Clooney’s scruffy federal marshal. The great Frances McDormand, as the Pitt character’s plastic surgery-seeking partner in would-be crime, sports a severe blonde bob in place of an actual performance; like the desperate rubes of countless Coen films past, her Linda Litzke will stop at nada to get her moolah. (Why so many pathetic thieves in the brothers’ homage-laden cinema?)

On the morning after “Burn” enjoyed a less than sizzling reception in Toronto, a journalist asks the brothers, seated at a table along with the actors, if the film’s “dark undertone” and “empty, vacuous, self-serving” characters reflect the Coens’ own worldview.

“Sounds like it,” deadpans Joel.

Ethan issues a mocking, “Yeah, uh-huh,” then says more seriously, “I’m not even sure it’s an undertone.”

A comment on politics? Not really …
Another writer who’s seemingly never heard the Coen brothers speak asks if the movie’s black-comic manipulations and rampant infidelity constitute a comment on contemporary Washington politics.

Joel: “Like with most of our stuff, it’s not really meant to be a comment. It’s really about these particular characters.” He pauses, looks down, then back up. “I’m sorry, I’ve lost the thread of the question.” He turns to his brother. “Do you have anything to say?”

Ethan: “I thought you were taking the question, so my mind sort of …”

Cue press corps laugh track.

Though the brothers’ nonconformity to Q&A protocol has become as tired a shtick as anything in “Burn After Reading,” what’s new since the “No Country for Old Men” Oscars — and, the critic will concede, even a little delightful — is the earnestness with which the Coens plead their ignorance of the highfalutin’ even while delivering the same shrugs, sighs and “uhhhs,” their hands as often as not placed over their mouths.

“Yeah, you know, you make a movie,” says Ethan, “because you find something about the story compelling, something about the characters. You do think that it should speak for itself. Or even stronger than that: You don’t have anything to say [about it] because you don’t think about it in other terms — terms in which journalists think about it. But then here you are sitting in front of a bunch of journalists and kind of legitimately they ask you to say something that isn’t just self-evident from the movie, and you’re stumped. Sometimes they think you’re being coy or elusive, but the fact is you just don’t have anything else to say.”

Swinton: ‘rock solid’ script
The three actors are somewhat more articulate, particularly on the subject of how the Coens’ screenplays appear the opposite of their speech.

“One of the most fantastic things about working with them is that the script is so rock solid,” says Swinton, whose character is married to Malkovich’s but is trysting with Clooney’s. “You mess with [the script] at your peril. Because they write it so well. How could you possibly improve it?”

Pitt concurs, adding a joke about the unflatteringly dumb character the Coens wrote especially for him. “I’ve been knockin’ on the brothers’ door for a few years, so I was really happy when they called. Until I read the piece, and then I was a little upset.”

One of the hundred or so scribes here actually does venture to ask the brothers why their movies tend to be teeming with “dolts and knuckleheads,” leading to another variant of “We don’t think about that.”

A reasonable place to film
Later, however, Joel does admit to having thought quite seriously about whether to shoot the follow-up in Minnesota.

“When you’re making a film on a limited budget,” he says, “you go where you’re gonna get the most bang for your buck. If you can make it somewhere that’s reasonable in terms of the resources and the locations you’re looking for, that’s best. I mean, Wisconsin and Minnesota, they’re …”

Interchangeable?

“Well, they’re different places,” says the brother who shot much of “Fargo” in Minnesota, “but they’re certainly [close enough] in terms of movie locations. Minnesota is starting to have more liberal tax benefits — or more generous tax benefits — for production. And we preferred to make it there for a number of reasons. Minnesota is what was in our minds when we wrote the story. And also, we have previous experience there with production crews and all the rest of it. We just know the territory better. So that’s why we ended up there really.”

What, you expected warm fuzzies from the native sons who brought us ice-cold Jerry Lundegaard?

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