Cagematch, Cinema: Burn After Reading vs Tropic Thunder

It has been a while since I have done the theatrical Cagematch, so please forgive the error I am about to make: referring to the same source for the reviews.

Tropic Thunder is destined to lose most of the Cagematches it which it finds itself. While Dustin Rowles has a nice review of the movie over Pajiba, Rowles is plagued by a single fault: courtesy. His review is scathing in places but then not in others that richly deserve it. His one bit of deserved praise is solely about Robert Downey, Jr’s performance:

Robert Downey, Jr. owns Tropic Thunder. A dude playing a dude disguised as another dude steals just about every second within every minute of every scene he is in. Even when he’s given mediocre material to work with, he transcends it while firmly maintaining a supporting role, so the shtick blessedly doesn’t get old and, assuming there’s not an unnecessary sequel, you can find comfort in the knowledge that Downey has created one of the great characters in comedic history (and there is no one, I’d argue, that could’ve come close to pulling it off as well as Downey — anybody else and it would’ve been laughable, over-the-top, and offensive, instead of silly, ridiculous and, in its implicit commentary on the hubris of white America and the egotism of actors, pretty insightful too).

Other than that section Rowles is undeservedly nice to the movie. Rowles is incorrect when he claims this movie is not about men in states of arrested development. While this is true of some parts of the movie, overall it is about a state of arrested development. What Rowles misses (how does he miss this?) is that it is about an industry run by adolescents, so no local criticism is made of the characters being adolescents. Rowles says the problem with the movie is that they “created a brilliant comedic premise, offered up all the raw materials for a great Hollywood satire, and then half-assed it.” Of course they did. The industry attracts half-assers firstly because of the (as Rowles notes) bottom-line directives but also because it is the half-assers which are more concerned with celebrity and “making art” than making serious criticism. I realize there are exceptions to the rule and you are welcome to name them but I would argue they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

A movie that is a better criticism of adolescents is Burn After Reading. When watching the other movies by the Coens I realize they are mocking morons, but I never actually feel as though they endorse those in power because they usually do a fine job of also lampooning those with money and/or power. However, this movie is different.

Malcovich’s monologue at the very end resonates. Normally I feel these speeches in their films are just another example of the character’s idiocy, but this time I felt it was sincere. Sadly, it was directed against the only likeable character in the movie, which brings to my theory about why this particular film will not make big bucks.

There are two things which will make it seem slow: the lack of likeable characters and the joke is not known to most people. The joke is the Ivy League good-old boys network of espionage films. There is a lot of Princeton bashing in this film, but I wonder if most people remember just how enfranchised the Cold Warriors were in this pedigree.

Daniel Carlson, also over at Pajiba, has a review of this film that is not nearly as good as the above referenced review. One of the main errors Carlson makes is by dismissing the setting of the movie. “The park” is really The National Mall, which is important. He also makes this explicit disavowal of it being a Washington, DC film:

It’s impossible to view Burn After Reading as anything other than another film in which the Coens create a small world of idiosyncratic characters and then watch them run into each other.

Wrong. It is precisely this seemingly nature of idiosyncratic characters that makes it an explicitly DC movie. These movies are driven by characters, usually named Mother or something odd, and this movie is an homage to the form: even if it may be in the form of some mockery. The genre is so pervasive, as the Coens hint, that even morons with no connection to espionage think they know enough to hang with the big boys. The plot does not begin because the characters are morons, it begins because the espionage genre and living in DC is so pervasive. The idiocy of the main characters only steps in where most people would bow out: when confronted by the professionals and their own in-over-their-headedness. Carlson wants to read this movie as a comedy instead of as a continuation, which seems to be a fairly devastating error given the Coens are all about remaking genre pieces.

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