Joel and Ethan Coen know their idiots.
They’ve written every sort of bonehead, nitwit and lamebrain imaginable in both comic and tragic form in such films as “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Yet they may have topped themselves for siring simpletons with the dark comedy “Burn After Reading,” which stars usual Coen suspects George Clooney, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins and new pals Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton.
They’re like the Hole in the Head Gang, this bunch that blunders its way through the motions of a spy game touched off by a missing computer disc with some modestly sensitive CIA secrets.
It’s a farcical about-face from the Coens’ last film, the bleak “No Country for Old Men,” which dominated the 2007 Academy Awards, the Coens winning for best-picture, director and adapted screenplay.
Does the Coens’ penchant for dopes say anything about what they think of humanity as a whole?
“Jeez, I don’t know,” Ethan Coen, 50, says in an interview alongside his brother with The Associated Press a few hours before “Burn After Reading” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s a fair characterization of these characters, but boy, bringing it to real life is kind of a strange thing. You don’t go around thinking about how characters in a movie, in the stories you make up, relate to people in general.”
“Right,” Joel Coen, 53, continues. “I don’t think we would draw or extrapolate anything from those things into generalizations about people or how we feel about people.”
The Coens say dummies often just make for good characters and stories.
‘They’re sort of dream people to work for’In this case, they settled on a group of actors they wanted to work with and kicked around ideas for a story that would hold them all. McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife, has worked frequently with them since their debut feature, “Blood Simple,” winning the best-actress Oscar for “Fargo.”
Clooney and Jenkins each had worked with the Coens on two previous flicks, while the brothers had long wanted to direct Pitt and Malkovich.
The Coens wrote five of the six main characters in “Burn After Reading” specifically for those actors. Swinton, who won last year’s supporting-actress Oscar for Clooney’s “Michael Clayton,” was cast in the remaining role.
The actors eagerly signed on to work with the Coens.
“You hate to sort of just sit around praising people. It sounds like, I don’t know, you’re running for office. But I think for most actors, they’re sort of dream people to work for,” Malkovich says. “They’re highly accomplished, very nice, fun to be around, kind, they have kind of a Midwestern reserve and nice detachment from who they are. It’s just really a pleasure.”
The Coens are a little hazy on the order in which they came up with the film’s strange confluence of Washington’s intelligence community and the world of physical fitness, but Joel Coen says an early idea was casting Malkovich as a CIA analyst who loses his job.
From there, they thought about how to cross his path with ordinary citizens in Washington and came up with the notion of McDormand as a gym worker obsessed with reinventing herself by plastic surgery, a la Linda Tripp, a key figure in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Pitt’s character became McDormand’s chuckle-headed co-worker and ally, Jenkins the moon-eyed boss silently smitten with her, Clooney a federal marshal and sex hound sleeping with Swinton, who’s Malkovich’s ice queen of a wife.
To quote Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the whole bunch is “just dumber than a bag of hammers.”
Admitting to a ‘puerile sense of humor’A disc containing CIA material Malkovich’s character is using to write his memoirs falls into the hands of Pitt and McDormand, who set out to blackmail him with all the panache of the Keystone Kops.
“The dynamic in this movie, for instance, between Fran and Brad, we can compare to like a Laurel and Hardy movie, where both characters are really idiots, but by common consent between the two of them, one of them has decided that the other one is smarter. There’s a little of that in ‘O Brother,”’ Joel Coen says. “So that how people perceive who the alpha leader is or the smarter one is, that can be very funny or interesting to reflect on.”
Ethan Coen compares that dumb-and-dumber factor to experiences they’ve had on commercials and advertising shoots.
“Sometimes it’s good, and you can do kind of fun stuff that’s interesting, and sometimes you’re in a situation where people are sitting around talking about a bunch of completely idiotic ideas,” Ethan Coen says. “And you couldn’t choose one from the other because they’re all totally idiotic, but somehow a consensus forms in the group that this one is the right one. It’s bizarre.”
Also bizarre is much of the action the Coens put their characters through. Clooney, whom Joel Coen says shares their “puerile sense of humor,” is set to work at a secret project in the basement: Building an intricate sex apparatus as a gift for his character’s wife.
Joel Coen said the sex machine had two inspirations: A contraption he once saw made by a movie grip and another displayed at the Museum of Sex in New York City. The Coens offered to take Clooney to the museum to show him the device.
“George said, ‘That’s all I need is to be seen coming out of the Museum of Sex with you guys,”’ Joel Coen said.
New genre: The ‘warmedy’Lately, the Coens have wasted no time moving on to their next projects. They already had shot “Burn After Reading” when they collected their trophies at last February’s Oscars, and they began shooting another film Monday in their home state, Minnesota.
Starring a cast of comparative Hollywood unknowns led by stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, “A Serious Man” centers on the domestic strife of a college professor in a Midwest Jewish community in 1967.
“It’s a ‘warmedy,’ it’s a ‘Table for Five’ kind of thing,” Ethan Coen says, slyly adding, “It’s our ‘warmedy.”’
Approaching stories in their own twisted way remains the Coens’ routine, even though they have edged from the fringes of cinema into the Hollywood players club.
Their Oscar triumph on “No Country for Old Men” hasn’t changed a thing, they say.
“No, no, no,” Ethan Coen says. “It’s a weird thing. It might have if it had been, like, on our second movie, but we’re just frankly, we’re just kind of set in our ways. ... We’re just old.”
“Age does play into it in the sense that if you stick around long enough, if you stick around and survive in any business long enough, you get a creeping and creepy feeling a little bit, after a while, that you’ve somehow entered the establishment of that world,” Joel Coen says. “Nobody likes to necessarily think of themselves in that way.
“The Oscars are sort of just another aspect of having stuck around long enough, and that’s sort of confirmation of the fact that you’re part of the establishment as opposed to part of the outside. There are good things and bad things about that, as you can imagine, and there would be in any business. But mostly, it’s a good thing in the sense that when your ambition is to be able to keep doing what you want to do the way you want to do it, that kind of attention and confirmation from the business is great. It can only be helpful.”