Dumb & Dumber” has been a dominant theme in American pop culture since long before the movie of the same name in 1994, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Seemingly every third TV commercial uses a variation on it, with amiable fools stumbling over everyday predicaments such as choice of fast food or buying auto insurance. Dumb-guy movies still sell tickets, presumably to audiences who can relate. Some would even argue that a certain incompetent oilman built his presidency on the “Dumb & Dumber” premise. So it was probably only a matter of time until the Coen Bros., ordinarily one of the country’s brightest filmmaking teams, went for the price and dumbed it down.
The Coens’ principal dummies in their frequently funny but ultimately trying new comedy, Burn After Reading, are Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a pair of personal trainers at a Washington, DC gym, who find a CD of what they think is sensitive national security information on the men’s locker room floor and then try to peddle it, disastrously. Linda is a greedier, more impatient, lonelier version of McDormand’s Trooper Marge from Fargo. She needs the shakedown money to finance a series of cosmetic surgery procedures (“I’m reinventing myself”). Air-head gym rat Chad is just in it for the, uh, you know, hell of it.
The errant CD belongs to Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a career CIA intelligence analyst who has just left that agency after being demoted, and is now writing his memoirs between sips of whatever’s available. The CD contains notes for his book. Cox’s premature retirement doesn’t sit well with his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton, even icier than usual). In fact, nothing sits especially well with bad-tempered pediatrician Katie, including her affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married US Marshal whose seemingly random randiness extends, eventually, to Linda the gym spy herself. As the CIA officers following this case from their office in Langley put it: “They all seem to be sleeping with each other.”
Leaving aside actor McDormand’s sleeping arrangements with co-writer/director Joel Coen, everyone involved in this cozy confederacy of dunces (or “league of morons,” as Cox would put it) has done much better work, often with each other. Burn After Reading fits into the Coens’ filmography on the Raising Arizona–The Hudsucker Proxy–O Brother, Where Art Thou? side of the aisle, where the brothers’ built-in handicaps as screenwriters are most apparent. As in Miller’s Crossing, the bodies pile up as the jokes fizzle (the Coens seem to really have it in for actor Dermot Mulroney). The funniest and most sympathetic characters are Cox’s ex-bosses at CIA, played by David Rasche and the wonderful J.K. Simmons. It’s Simmons’ character who levels the best criticism of this follow-up to No Country for Old Men, with its high-priced cast and hasty-looking screenplay: “What a cluster fuck.” Luckily, a month from now you’ll have forgotten all about it.
For his 68th film, Claude Chabrol spins out a sardonic love triangle in which everyone involved gets burned, whether they deserve to or not. But let’s be honest, of course they all deserve what’s coming to them. There are no innocents in A Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupée en deux), the story of Gabrielle Deneige, a TV weather girl in Lyon (played by Ludivine Sagnier), who falls in love with a much older man, famous novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), at the same time that a young playboy named Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel) is falling in love with her.
Cute, blond Gabrielle’s career at the local TV station is on the upswing. Sure, her mother disapproves of her choice of beaux, but for Gabrielle, Charles represents wisdom, sophistication, and a perhaps ticket to somewhere more exciting. The life of millionaire Charles is a bit more complicated. Not content with his best-selling books, his lavish country home, and the attentions of his lovely younger wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli), Charles maintains an in-town fuck pad and dabbles (wallows?) in the shadowy swingers’ scene at a nearby bordello, shades of the Marquis de Sade. Worse than that, the self-satisfied old rake is incurably addicted to tossing epigrams — mostly other writers’ — and similar tiresome bits of wordplay into his conversations.
Charles’ opposite number, Paul, a rich fop with a penchant for fashion-victim jackets, has pre-existing reasons to loathe Charles. We sense that Paul, dissolute heir to a chemical-industry fortune, sees in the celebrated novelist a rival for the limelight in provincial Lyon. Just witnessing the luscious Gabrielle — a prize Paul feels entitled to — go off with Charles is unbearable to the spoiled dandy. All this bitter social-butterfly intrigue could have been lifted from the pages of Choderlos de Laclos or Barbey d’Aurevilly, but the story and screenplay were written by Chabrol and his stepdaughter, Cécile Maistre.
Adding to the 18th-century feel of the film are the people flitting around Charles and Paul, principally Charles’ “good friend” and manager, Capucine (sexy Mathilda May), his partner in debauchery as well as literature. What exactly goes on at the top of the whorehouse staircase is left up to our imaginations, unlike in Eyes Wide Shut. Paul’s horrid family is a back story unto itself: the stuffy mansion where they entertain bores, the two repressed younger sisters, and his mother (wonderfully etched by Caroline Sihol), a brittle, religious widow burdened with more than one guilty family secret and an over-weaning need to avoid scandal. The beauty mark on her chin cries out for a guillotine.
Magimel, so memorable in The Pianist as well as in Chabrol’s The Bridesmaid and The Flower of Evil, pretty much runs away with the movie as Paul, a strutting popinjay badly in need of a beating — his physical resemblance to Sean Penn only reinforces the notion. When Magimel walks into a scene it’s difficult to pay attention to anyone else, even gorgeous Ms. Sagnier (Swimming Pool, Love Songs) and veteran character lead Berléand, on local screens recently in Tell No One. A curious thing happens with the figure of Paul — initially repulsive, he grows pathetic before our eyes.
For Chabrol, the treacheries and frailties of the middle classes are the staff of life. By the time we grasp the literal meaning of the title, the wily French master has slipped us another of his patented commentaries, not a morality play but something far more worldly and difficult to ignore. Beware the rich and say a prayer for snowy Gabrielle, A Girl Cut in Two.