The Bleak Spaces and Blank Faces of FARGO

The Bleak Spaces and Blank Faces of FARGO

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When Fargo was released, I felt that my home state of Minnesota had finally been given its Oresteia, its Njal’s Saga, its Double Indemnity. Over the ensuing years, however, the popular image created by the Coen Brothers‘ regional epic has been a questionable inheritance. Thanks to Fargo, most people seem to think Minnesotans speak in cute, folksy phrases like “you betcha,” “ya, sure,” and “heckyamean?”  I’d like to say that this is totally untrue, but some Minnesotans actually do talk like that.  Sometimes I talk like that.  For instance, there’s this one phrase I picked up from one of my Mom’s friends.  She used to pause, look directly at you, wink, and say “True story!” with the trademark Minnesotan long “o.” This could be roughly translated into Laconic Midwestern as “yup.”  Now I say it.  Sure, initially we used the phrase around the house as a kind of joke, a gentle mockery of my Mom’s friend, but at some indefinable point it became an actual, living part of my vocabulary. 

The Coen Brothers do not so much write dialogue as dialects for their characters, rich vocabularies and idioms that wend through their films, giving solidity to even the most outlandish narratives. They create linguistic communities connected by language despite their often-violent conflicts. At times the very phraseology that marks them as belonging to the same tribe serves to maintain a chilly distance. The Minnesotan phrase “yah, real good,” for example, might convey warm approval, angry impatience, or curt dismissal, depending on the speaker. The characters in Fargo may speak the same language, but it shapes them in dramatically different ways.

nullAt the center of the film are two portraits of domesticity, one warm and loving, the other bitter and resentful.  When we first encounter these families there is little to distinguish them: they all seem to communicate in cheerful idioms suggesting all is hunky dory, you betcha.  As the horrible crime instigated by the secretly resentful Jerry Lundegaard begins to unfold, however, we see the void at the heart of the chirpy Midwestern family. In the terms of Icelandic saga, we might say that the Lundegaards marry
into the Gustafsons, and the tension between the tribal patriarchs
smolders into conflict.  Translated into 1980s Minnesotan: Jerry feels
threatened by his father-in-law, Wade, and hopes to score big on a
parking lot development.  Once we have first experienced the repressed anguish of the Lundegaards, their story subtly taints the film’s later portrayal of domestic life.  Marge and Norm Gunderson are expecting a child, and their shared life seems to consist mostly of trite conversations exchanged over large portions of food.  Their Minnesotan phrases and accents make them appear silly, comical, like characters in a Garrison Keillor routine.  But as they live their seemingly small, inconsequential lives, they breathe love and vitality into the very same language the Lundegaards use with so little meaning, such hidden meanness. 

nullThese very different families are brought together by a series of murders that unfold as a result of a peculiar crime instigated by Jerry Lundegaard that reads like a bad Midwestern joke: “D’ja hear the one about the guy that had his own wife kidnapped?” What drives him to this act remains something of a mystery.  When Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) asks him why anyone would want to do such a thing, he smiles nervously and stutters, “Well, that’s, that’s, I’m not go inta, inta—see, I just need money.” As the hired kidnappers press him, he nervously responds, “See, these are . . . personal matters.”  Like his two hapless goons, the audience learns little more of Jerry’s motives, as he turns away all unwanted scrutiny with a wooden smile and conversational clichés.  In what remains William H. Macy’s greatest performance, he transforms the annoying patter of the used car salesman into an accomplice to murder.

The television serves as the visual and conceptual link between the criminal elements set into motion by Lundegaard and the redemptive powers of the Gundersons.  After the kidnapping, Carl and his taciturn partner Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) take Jerry’s wife Jean to a cabin in the woods, where they eat TV dinners while trying to get a signal on a broken down set.  The growing tension of the film, the recent acts of violence, are renewed by Carl as he slams his fists on the television in between anxious readjustment of the jerry-rigged antenna.  The snowy screen fleetingly resolves itself into a ghostly picture with each bang, and the camera closes in on what Carl angrily refers to as “the fuckin’ shit-box.” 

nullSuddenly the picture resolves into an episode of the PBS show Nature.  The soporific voice of the narrator, in stark contrast to Showalter’s rage, intones: “The bark beetle carries the worm to its nest where it will feed its young for up to six months.”  We then see Marge and Norm Gunderson in bed, bathed in the stark light of the television, Marge watching with a glazed look while Norm sleeps against her side, both lying amidst a spilled bag of Old Dutch Potato Chips.  The narration continues: “In the spring, the larvae hatch and the cycle begins again.”  Since Marge is visibly pregnant, the program seems to comment on her own young, soon to hatch.  The Gunderson nest seems a placid place, a place of mindless gestation and hibernation.  But when the phone call comes summoning Police Chief Marge Gunderson to investigate a double homicide, their home becomes a retreat, a sanctuary from the world of meaningless violence in which we have been immersed.  It is a sanctuary from which Marge must emerge, restoring the world with love and order so that she can rear her child in peace.

The television figures prominently in another, very different, domestic scene shown earlier in the film.  Jean Lundegaard sits in her bathrobe, knitting while she watches what is perhaps the most annoying piece of local television ever recorded, KSTP-TV’s Good Company. Begun in the 1980s, the daytime variety and chat show was hosted by smarmy husband and wife team Steve and Sharon Edelman, a pair whose barely suppressed egos and strained cheeriness embody everything that is most repulsive in the Minnesotan character.  As Steve and his substitute co-host Katie Carlson describe how to make “Holidazzle Eggs” (don’t ask), Jean smiles, mesmerized by her imaginary friends.  Through the sliding glass door behind the television we see their surrounding community by way of the backs of several identical four-bedrooms. The Lundegaards aren’t typical so much as interchangeable with their neighbors; that is, until the violence unleashed by Jerry appears, in the form of a shambling, balaclava-clad figure who wanders up to the glass door and peers in. His appearance is so incongruous with the bland coziness of the domestic scene that the film seems to pause and gape along with Jean before he swings back a crow bar and smashes through the window, chasing Jean through the house as she screams in terror.

Fargo has been justly celebrated for its use of bleak, snowy landscapes to mirror the cold inner worlds of its most malevolent characters, but it should be noted that snow has many shades. The outside world prior to Jean’s abduction is decidedly beige, the neutral tones of the housing development barely standing out from the dirty late-winter snow. It is a blandness from which violence emerges, aptly reflecting the Lundegaards’ domesticity.  The film is filled with bleak spaces and blank faces, snow-covered rural roads and airport parking lots creating an appropriate backdrop to the glazed looks of blankly-smiling waitresses, dull-eyed truck-stop girls, and chatty used car salesman.  It is a blankness that threatens to devour even the film’s heroic Marge Gunderson and her cozy domestic life.

In one of the strangest scenes in the Coens’ oeuvre, Marge arranges an apparently illicit meeting with an old high school friend, Mike Yanagita, who calls her in the middle of the night hoping to catch up.  His eagerness over the phone clearly marks him as a stalker, yet Marge’s otherwise sound police instincts seem to fail her, or perhaps she simply chooses to ignore them.  In arranging a meeting with this rather sad stand-in for the role of “old flame,” her motives are suddenly as vague and shadowy as Jerry Lundegaard’s.  Their brief lunch date at The Radisson devolves quickly, as Mike’s chummy bluster grows increasingly flirtatious. When Marge checks his advances, he begins to tell the story of his wife’s death from leukemia, which at first arouses Marge’s pity, before his tearful desperation frightens her into calling a halt to the lunch. In a later phone conversation Marge discovers from a high school friend that Mike was never married, and she stares into space, having touched briefly one of the many blank spaces of the frozen world.

The film concludes with Marge and Norm Gunderson back in bed.  In between this and the earlier scene watching television in bed, Marge has conquered the forces of evil and restored order to their cozy world: their bedroom now appears touchingly intimate, nurturing. But if the contrasting greed and violence displayed earlier now lends a quiet dignity to their humble existence, it also lingers as a barely repressed threat. We have seen the violence that can emerge from blankness, and as their faces settle into a slightly glazed placidity, we can almost hear the wind howling outside. True story.

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Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

null[Editor’s note: The following is a collection of essays on the critical overestimation of No Country for Old Men, by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke.]

No Country for Old Men? Overrated!!!

When the Coen brothers’ eponymous film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men was released in 2007, it received near-universal critical acclaim; after the subpar efforts Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it indicated an artistic comeback for its directors.

In general, the honed and virtuosic filmmaking skills of the Coens, combined with their postmodern storytelling sensibilities, give their detractors reason to call them talented but glib. Yet with No Country, the Coens-as-adaptors had ostensibly harnessed their usual instincts in the service of McCarthy’s source material, while using their talents as directors to make it a dynamic and multifaceted movie that had proved their salt as genuine auteurs.

Though many consider No Country to be an untouchable classic in the Coens’ oeuvre, it remains tonally flawed. Consequently—and at the risk of putting “my soul at hazard” by receiving invective from die-hard fans of the Coens and No Country—I consider it to be overrated and feel that A Serious Man and the Coens’ True Grit adaptation are more artistically successful later career films.

Effectively, No Country’s plot can be divided into two parts. The first part tells of the flight and pursuit of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) by Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and psychotic hit-man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) after Moss takes money from the scene of a drug-deal-related massacre. The second part resolves the three-tiered chase and further develops Bell’s melancholic nature.

Well within the Coens’ wheelhouse, the first part is basically a thriller that incorporates aspects of film noir and the western and is filmed or stylized in an artful and “resplendently austere” manner. The violence is gruesome, the editing is efficient, and the action and humor are darkly entertaining. The second part, on the other hand, is more restrained and less gruesome and humorous, in order to amplify the tragic and bleak resolution of the story.

This dichotomization of No Country is my main issue with the film: if Sheriff Bell’s resigned fear of entropy is where the basic theme of No Country lies, and if that fear is exemplified by the mayhem that is instigated by Llewellyn and Anton in the first half of the movie, then why did the Coens decide to represent that violence as slick and thrilling Grand Guignol? This is an inconsistency that makes the two parts of No Country incongruous and its resolution less devastating and resonant than it should be.

As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid. Likewise, if Bell’s saturnine worldview is thematically important in the end, then why is his apathy used as a source of much of the film’s gallows humor? This aspect feels appropriate to the Coens’ style but inappropriate to the story’s point.

When talking to a friend about the most recent James Bond film, she joked that “another name for Skyfall could’ve been No Country for Old Women.” Both No Country for Old Men and Skyfall feature Javier Bardem playing relentless villains who wear odd coiffures; also, both films were shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Moreover, both films have older authoritarian characters, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Judi Dench,, who respectively underscore the similar theses of each movie. Yet, as Skyfall is a franchise movie that had the added bonus of being dramatic and exquisitely made, for me No Country for Old Men is a well crafted yet thematically compromised art house version of a Terminator movie.–Lincoln Flynn

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

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Why Blood Simple Towers Over No Country for Old Men

Characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen tend toward the archetypical, but rather than existing in their expected cinematic habitat, they’re placed in ridiculous and macabre situations they simply are not prepared for. Though it is usually a delightful conceit, in No Country for Old Men (2005), it starts to become a belabored what-if scenario rather than a meaningful set of juxtapositions. No Country is a meditation on mortality and the eternal fight between humanity and inexplicable evil, set in rural Texas in the early 1980s, the same locale and era as the Coens’ early neo-noir Blood Simple. Both feature postmodern aesthetics, pitch-perfect and witty dialogue, the celebration of regional variances in language and culture, and characters suffering from a surfeit of poor decisions. They are both without question exceptional films. Comparisons between them are unavoidable, though in terms of style and substance, Blood Simple is the more successful of the two.

In Blood Simple, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses combine with darkly comic undertones in a situation that could be resolved, or at least improved, if the two main characters had just talked to each other. The characters are at times very silly, an endearing trait in a film that examines the tragedy of poor choices. The Coens have since ceased caring whether the audience sympathizes with characters or not, though that tack is quite effective in No Country for Old Men. While Blood Simple is about lack of communication, No Country shows us that, sometimes, communication makes no difference at all. A flattened affect throughout the film heightens the realization that emotional connections simply do not matter in the face of true evil.

Where this flatness of emotion goes wrong is in No Country‘s tendency to leave moments unfinished. The Coens at one time were more than willing to let audiences figure things out for themselves. Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death  or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It’s artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens’ rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism.

Blood Simple, like most Coen brothers films, is clearly referential. One of the best such moments is the brazen borrowing of the famous ground-level swooping shot from Evil Dead (1981), a film which Joel Coen had worked on as assistant editor. The reference simultaneously invokes humor, the horror genre and a nod to burgeoning indie film movement of the film’s time. But where references like these in Blood Simple are natural and lighthearted, in No Country they are cold, calculated moments of manipulation. No Country, for example, copies the restaurant scene from Fargo; in these scenes, police officers in both films achieve necessary moments of clarity. It’s heavy-handed and out of place in No Country, a lazy quotation of their own cultural milestone without thought for its relevance.

Early in the Coens’ filmmaking careers, contempt was not a successful trait in a character. M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I. in Blood Simple possesses an undisguised derision for everyone around him, but it is undermined by the resourcefulness and luck of those he’s trying to con. For the Coens, the purpose of contempt has changed, and is now often the single biggest factor in resolving conflict: A character who shows contempt almost always wins out.

This is especially true in the case of the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country, a killer whose contemptuous attitude is proven right time and again. It is his most important and identifiable characteristic, one that allows his particular brand of evil to succeed. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as exasperated with the folks around him, though he keeps his contempt in check, leaving him powerless against the sociopath’s self-imposed moral superiority.

The disdain for humanity in No Country, as in many of their other films, spills over into the filmmakers’ contempt for the audience. The Coens seem loathe nowadays to even acknowledge there is such a thing a worthwhile everyday person. In Blood Simple, Ray (John Getz) is an everyman archetype, on the surface as bland as John Gavin in Psycho (1960), yet we’re fascinated by his actions and sympathetic with him when things go wrong. In No Country, a series of everypersons, both men and women, are grotesques, stubborn and dull and frustrating. In an attempt to lead the audience into the mind of a killer, the Coens want us to be as unimpressed with these everyday people as Chigurh is; once you resist, Chigurh becomes caricature, just another dead-eyed psycho with a gimmick.

In the process of subverting themes in No Country for Old Men, the Coens often dispense with narrative altogether, preferring to use the film as a vehicle for delivering their own signature style. The film never quite gets around to challenging the validity of conventional cinematic narrative techniques, though it clearly means to do so. Blood Simple, in contrast, challenges common genre constructs precisely because it uses standard narrative techniques, and also allows for a humanity that encourages viewers to more closely engage with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. Though both films are fine works in their own right, Blood Simple is a more exceptional one—even if it is more traditional.–Stacia Kissick Jones

Stacia Kissick Jones is a recovering literature major, freelance editor
and film critic. She is a regular contributor at
Spectrum Culture Online
and
ClassicFlix, and blogs at She Blogged By Night
(
http://www.shebloggedbynight.com).

nullNo Breathing Room: The Crucial Flaw of No Country for Old Men

A movie can be great and overrated, and so it is with the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men. The Coens’ trademark deftness with light and framing and showing a story rather than telling it gave us the best cinematic treatment of Cormac McCarthy to date. But much praise for the film conflates its technical brilliance with an imagined depth and detail of thought. In reality this film manages only to sketch ideas that have been more fully explored in other, similar films.

Considering the challenges of recreating the ideas from Cormac McCarthy’s notoriously thorny and meditative prose with visual language, No Country For Old Men achieves some wondrous things. The choice to eschew music almost entirely is particularly inspired as a reflection of McCarthy’s harsh, amoral world, and excellent performances help animate his ambivalent, despairing take on nostalgia for a simpler time that never quite was. A few things get lost in translation, but it’s a mistake to get too caught up in comparing book and film here.

The problem instead is that in effecting their translation, the Coens produced a film that only engages the story’s themes at arm’s length. The pulpy churn of the main plot crowds out any deeper meaning the three main characters’ pursuits of their respective fables might have.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) pursues the simple self-deception that he’s cunning enough to steal $2 million from a cartel and live to enjoy it. That sets the captivating plot into motion, but the Coens excise some significant chunks of his flight, and freeze-dry the thematic nutrition out of his arc in the process. He’s fun to root for, but exists solely to necessitate the chase.

Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) fable is that the underworld’s predatory jungle law responds to fate and luck, and can be influenced by how men tend to their sense of honor. That’s a promising concept, but it’s only hinted at, never fleshed out. No Country‘s most memorable moments involve Bardem leaning his full weight into dazzling lines that don’t add up to anything coherent. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” is a great bit of language, but Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is right: Chigurh just sounds insane. Beyond the grace of his syntax, his pseudo-existentialist riffs carry no more weight than a Bond villain’s cackling soliloquy about the motives for his evil plot.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) fable is that men committed to rightness and legality are seeing a decay in their ability to preserve moral rectitude. Ed Tom’s weary grappling gets a fuller treatment, getting critiqued by fellow lawmen—“What you got ain’t new,” his uncle tells him—and reflected in the inter-generational tensions that crop up repeatedly at the edges of the story. Ed Tom’s statements are the closest No Country comes to actually biting down on some ideas rather than showing us the chain restaurant picture menu versions of them. But he, too, is just along for the ride of the main plot, popping in and out whenever it’s convenient.

There’s a better Tommy Lee Jones film on all these themes: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada tackles fatally bad luck, nostalgic male honor fulfillment, and modernity’s infringement on cowboy nobility without the sexy crime potboiler stuff that makes No Country so great an entertainment and so lightweight a film. The Coens have also done more with these ideas, in Blood Simple. The nominal stakes in these two movies are far lower than No Country‘s $2 million satchel of cash, but Blood Simple wrings more reflection on violence, mistrust, and self-deception out of a $10,000 wad. There’s no bouncing ball of cash to follow through Melquiades Estrada, but rather the corpse and memory of a man far unluckier than anyone on the wrong end of Chigurh’s cattle gun. The grand allure of the underworld pursuit makes No Country more fun, but it also reduces the big ideas its characters are chasing to window dressing for a nervy, unpredictable slaughter. The comparative simplicity and mundanity of the core stories in Blood Simple and Melquiades Estrada mean that those same ideas have room to breathe.–Alan Pyke

Alan
Pyke is a writer and commentator on film, television, fiction, music,
and politics, with a particular fascination for hiphop. He writes film
reviews for
TinyMixTapes and BrightestYoungThings, cultural criticism at The Daily Banter, and occasionally posts at his own site.

Chaos and Repair: Reclaiming THE LADYKILLERS

Chaos and Repair: Reclaiming THE LADYKILLERS

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[Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in the April 13, 2004 edition of New York Press.]

After 20 years of making movies, the Coens still don’t get the acclaim they deserve. Even in rave reviews, one senses a mistrust that originates in their perceived esthetic violations: their supposed hipness and detachment, their unwillingness to create “realistic” characters, their fondness for homage and pastiche and most of all, their relentless pursuit of visual and rhythmic perfection. They have been cited as smarty-pants pranksters who believe in nothing and are content to make movies about movies.

The latter sentiments were summarized in Anthony Lane’s April 5 New Yorker review, which called their remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers “dead in the water” and posed the rhetorical question, “Are these super-controlled filmmakers content with a career as pasticheurs?” Lane’s dismissal was prefigured in a more thorough and respectful 2000 Film Comment piece on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which writer-editor Kent Jones said many positive and even rapturous things about the Coens, yet still seemed unwilling to embrace their work in its totality. “In the end,” Jones writes, “no matter how much you’ve been entertained, you’re left with the nagging questions: who are the Coen Brothers and where are they coming from? Even Kubrick, the one cinematic idol whose shadow falls over Joel and Ethan’s playground, never hid himself so completely within his work.”

But even if we assume every charge leveled against the Coens is true, a fan is still entitled to reply, “So what?” If the above qualities are indeed cinematic crimes, then Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Kubrick should be deemed arch-criminals, and the Coens should trumpet their own guilt from the highest rooftop and urge fellow filmmakers to embark on like-minded lawbreaking sprees. If there’s an obvious downside to their approach, it’s that it’s so outwardly “perfect” that it encourages critics to deface each movie’s smooth surface rather than probe its roiling depths. That’s a shame, because the unity and complexity of the Coens’ work has few equals in modern cinema.

Furthermore, contrary to charges that they believe in nothing, I think the Coens are among the most moral (even moralistic) directors alive. Most (but not all) of their pictures are morality plays that deflate the selfishness and pomposity of individuals while finding good even in the most flawed social orders. Their films also insist, unfashionably, that there really is good and evil, and that while good is usually more naive than evil, it is (lucky for us) more stubborn and orderly.

nullConsider, for example, the fact that most Coen films revolve around showdowns between ego figures and id figures. (Think of the super-domestic mom in Raising Arizona, fighting to keep her reformed outlaw husband from being “seduced” by a pair of prison escapees and a demonic biker figure who first appears in a dream. Think also of Fargo, which contrasted pregnant cop Marge’s super-orderly, even dull home life against the random, whoremongering viciousness of the film’s nomadic criminals.) Think also of the Coens’ subtextual suggestion, in film after film, that even when evil is often stronger, cleverer, more charismatic and more ruthless than good, evil often destroys itself anyway because it’s more chaotic, more id-driven, than good, and thus more unstable. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo all revolve around criminal schemes that ultimately collapse beneath the weight of their participants’ accumulated selfishness, dishonesty and bravado (with help from a clever hero, or a deus ex machina). The buried narrative of most (though not all) Coen movies finds an orderly universe being plunged into chaos, then meticulously repaired. The repair work is often performed by disreputable outsider heroes (Jeff Lebowski, Marge in Fargo, Tom in Miller’s Crossing) who do good under the radar, so deftly (or instinctively) that society has no clue how much it owes them.

The Ladykillers is a Coen film par excellence. Yes, it’s a goofy, even frothy black comedy, a five-finger exercise from filmmakers who specialize in baroque contraptionist concertos. But it’s still a masterfully assembled picture on serious themes. More significantly, it contrasts good guys who believe in social order, a higher power and an eternal reward against fringe-dwelling bad guys who care for little besides money.

nullTom Hanks’ criminal “mastermind,” Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a pretentious dandy who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like a cross between James Lipton and Wile E. Coyote, supergenius, is obviously a devil figure, like the biker in Raising Arizona, or Robert Mitchum’s preacher in The Night of the Hunter. He first appears while decent church-going old lady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is talking to a portrait of her late husband, whose supernatural presence is certified by a point-of-view shot that looks down on Marva’s orderly living room from above. Dorr’s arrival is heralded by a sudden gust of wind that makes a candle flame flicker, and a shot of Dorr’s spooky silhouette against the window glass of Marva’s front door. Under the guise of renting a room and securing rehearsal space for his Renaissance and Rococo ensemble, the bad guy assembles a team of lowlife experts to tunnel through the wall of Marva’s basement and steal money from the nearby vault of a casino. The casino’s employees include Dorr’s inside man, the idiot casino janitor Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foulmouthed cretin who wears a dollar-sign necklace.

Without spoiling any plot twists or visual surprises, suffice it to say that while the Coens deflate the pretensions of each major character, no matter what part of the moral spectrum they inhabit, the film ultimately expresses approval of Marva and disdain for Dorr and his band of scurvy dolts. The Coens’ opposition of good and evil, chaos and order is so basic it’s nearly Manichean. Marva’s pastor warns his parishioners that society is decaying from a lack of morality and its citizens are worshiping false idols and indulging “declining, backsliding, never-minding sinners!” The movie’s soundtrack, supervised by regular collaborator T. Bone Burnett, contrasts the materialistic, mostly secular culture of hip-hop (represented on the soundtrack by “Another Day, Another Dollar”) against the steadfast spirituality of gospel (represented by such on-the-nose titles as “Trouble of this World”).

Like Lillian Gish’s holy maternal figure in The Night of the Hunter, Marva is sweetly incorruptible, the rock of decency Dorr’s gang of sleazy nitwits must dash itself against. Building on the original Ealing comedy by raising the spiritual stakes, the Coens depict criminals as literal lowlifes who do their dirty work in basements and tunnels, turn on each other like rats, and in the end, deserve to be disposed of like garbage. The systematic extermination of Dorr and company seems to be carried out not by any one character, but by unseen supernatural forces– Marva’s dearly departed but still watchful husband, perhaps, or even God himself. The Ladykillers may be silly, but it takes morality seriously. One wishes more critics would accord the same privilege to the Coens’ films.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

They Know Not What They Do: BURN AFTER READING

They Know Not What They Do: BURN AFTER READING

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When Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) descends into her husband’s basement office and copies financial records off of his computer, we get a glimpse of a book on the desk, a book that looks to be George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment: 1944-1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. This should not surprise us. We have previously heard Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), while struggling to dictate his memoirs, declare: “The principles of George Kennan—a personal hero of mine—were what animated us. In fact they were what had originally inspired me to enter government service.”

Burn After Reading is a film about containment and knowledge, or, to put it another way, a tale of wars against chaos. Necessarily, it is a farce.

The Coen brothers’ films are sometimes criticized as nihilistic. They are only nihilistic, though, in the sense that Buddhism is nihilistic. The films are full of characters who quest for meaning and purpose, but they quest badly. They seek eternal verities in a universe that only provides constant change, shifting perspectives, cultural relativisms, random sets, infinite fractals, and distant enlightenment. These are not nothing. Knowledge, meaning, and even, perhaps, purpose can be found in them. In A Serious Man, the movie the Coens made directly after Burn After Reading, and which serves as a kind of cousin to it in many ways, Rabbi Marshak is the wisest of all the characters because he knows enough to pay attention to a pop song: “When the truth is found. To be lies. And all the hope. Within you dies. Then what?” One command: “Be a good boy.” And, left unspoken but vividly present: “Find somebody to love.”

nullSpy thrillers appeal to the pleasures of secret knowledge, the idea of knowledge as power. God is Truth, and Truth is always hidden, available only to the worthy, jealously protected and obfuscated by the clerics. Conspiracy theories are theologies, but they are also power fantasies. One legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, who successfully petitioned (or bullied) Hollywood into taking the side of his knowledge-seeking G-men, is that the most common representation of government agents in American films is of technically skilled poobahs of the panopticon. This is especially true of conspiracy thrillers, whose verneer of subversive or cynical intent is usually itself subverted, because there is nothing more flattering to government agencies than to portray them as dangerously powerful. (It is better to be feared than loved.) Popular chronicles of conspiracy, whether tales of heroes or martyrs, give us lone wolves hunted by all-seeing feds or monolithic, hyper-competent corporations. Such stories leave no room for the everyday mess of bureaucracy, for institutionalized incompetence, for the slips and serendipities of inevitable human error, for technical glitches, for stupidity, for ignorance, for chaos. Power-flattering representations serve the acronymed agencies well, providing them with an aura of omniscience, authority, infallibility.

Burn After Reading counters this with a portrayal of bureaucracies that possess extraordinary powers of surveillance, but not knowledge. Outside the bureaucracy, in the random chaos of the world (and the precisely-structured chaos of the film’s narrative), we see individuals whose confidence in their own knowledge is misplaced. The smartest people in any room turn out to be the CIA bureaucrats who know what they don’t know, and are perfectly capable of working with that. Their goal is simply containment. But Harry (George Clooney), Linda (Frances McDormand), and Chad (Brad Pitt)—and to a certain extent Osborne and Katie—suffer epistemological hubris. Again and again, they call each other stupid, or morons, or idiots, as they vie for position in the hierarchy of, in every sense of the word, intelligence. But intelligence is overrated. Bureaucracy teaches the pragmatic lesson that containment doesn’t require omniscience. In Burn After Reading, it’s a lesson most of the individuals outside the bureaucracy don’t learn in time to save themselves.

nullTheir yearning for complex explanations and Hollywood thrills blinds the characters to the unexciting, unflattering truths in front of them. We see this right from the beginning: Osborne protests his demotion and scorns the idea that he has a drinking problem, insisting, “This is political! Don’t tell me it’s not!” He storms out of the office and we cut to him at home, making a drink. Again and again, the film will show us that Osborne is a man with a violent temper who drinks a lot. The reason the CIA decided to demote him may be, in fact, exactly what they said. Osborne Cox believes that a man of his stature could not be relieved of
his duties for mundane reasons, but must have been felled by the hand of
nefarious conspirators. Osborne wants for his life to have been important in some way, as do we all—to have been more than just the life of a run-of-the-mill man, an ordinary guy. Like so many people who think their lives will achieve immortality by being printed and bound into narrative, he decides to write his memoirs (and even to gild the word with a fine French twist, memwaaa).

But the only people who care about his memoirs are Linda and Chad, who assume Osborne is important—and so, though he can’t see it, he has found the ideal audience for his life’s story. (Their only competition being Osborne’s catatonic father, who may, for all we know, think his son is as unimportant and annoying as everybody else does.) Osborne, Linda, and Chad are ideologically matched: they believe in the legends of the CIA, the Hollywood stories of derring-do and secrets that must be preserved at all costs. The CIA itself does not believe this—Osborne Cox had a security clearance level of 3, which elicits barely a shrug when the agency superiors learn there has been a leak. The Russians, once they look at the memoir material, deem it to be drivel. The only people in the world who think Oswald’s work was so important as to be worth lots of money, major conspiracies, and maybe a Hollywood deal are Linda and Chad.

nullA superficial interpretation of the film would propose that the Coens think all these characters are stupid and that we should laugh at their follies—that we should, in fact, revel in our superiority to these schmucks. Hence the occasional (or more than occasional, depending on where you look) criticism of the Coens for mocking their characters, for holding them in contempt. I cannot speak for the Coens, who may, in fact, be sneering smartypants bathed in fumes of schadenfreude, but the feelings ultimately produced in my experience of their movies are not ones of superiority for the characters so much as sympathetic solidarity. Not for all the characters, of course. Inevitably, there are bullies and tyrants whose sufferings are sweetly just deserts, but look, for instance, at a character like Linda. We (or I, at least) start out laughing at her, at her oblivious self-absorption, her bumptiousness. Ohhh, look at this silly woman getting all marked up by the plastic surgeon, this woman who thinks her health insurance company will pay for her expensive nips and tucks. Ha ha ha, isn’t she hilarious, isn’t she ridiculous, isn’t she just—

But for me this contempt doesn’t last. And this is one of the great powers of the Coens’ films, and part of those films’ great artistry and value. In the Coens’ world, people who begin as caricatures become, somehow, more human than characters in even the grittiest of verité social realism.

In Burn After Reading, I can mark the precise moment where this happens for me: a POV shot twenty-one minutes into the film, a shot through the windows in the office of Linda’s boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), as Ted watches Linda hold her head and weep after the conversation with the  agent at the health insurance company. The effect stems from Frances McDormand’s performance, the terror in her eyes while she talks on the phone, the terror that lurks behind her mask of determination, and the moment where she can’t keep the mask from slipping. Having seen that, we don’t need to see her from the front right away. We know what she feels, we know why she weeps, and if we have any tinge of decency in our hearts, we feel chagrin. Because earlier, we saw her just as her plastic surgeon saw her: as silly meat. We judged her just as she judged the men whose profiles she so quickly flipped through on the dating website: “Loser, loser, loser.” We know now that this is her own fear, the fear she hopes, however realistically or unrealistically, to conquer by reinventing her physical self.

Loser, loser, loser. Haven’t you ever shared that fear? Haven’t you ever—foolishly, humanly—invested all your hopes in one path, and had that path shattered in an instant? (By a bureaucrat, perhaps, an agent . . .) Ted certainly has. His puppydog kindness toward Linda is a kindness I think we’re encouraged to share at that moment. Ted is the most decent guy in the film, a man who has come to accept life as it is, even to find pleasure in it. Once, he was a man of God, but it didn’t really work out. Now, he helps people get stronger, to get in better shape. Linda can’t see what Ted has to offer, his loving ordinariness, because her mask and her expectations blind her to Ted’s obvious infatuation. It’s too bad for Ted, but we’ve been him, too: a bit too puppydog, a bit too ordinary. For all his differences from Linda and from Osborne Cox, his fears are the same. All the main characters’ fears are the same. They don’t want to be a loser like the other losers. There’s contempt there, sure, but it’s not raw contempt so much as it’s a contempt masking fear. It’s a contempt we’re complicit in, but the Coens show us that we can escape our complicity by escaping our fears and embracing, accepting, and even delighting in our loserdom. Linda is one of the few characters to survive in the end, and the only character to truly get what she wanted from the beginning. Her triumph is one I celebrate, and I cherish the experience of starting from contempt for her when she first appears and evolving to cheer on her success at the end. The surgeries serve as the film’s primary MacGuffin, but as MacGuffins go it’s a complex one, because the gift of the movie is the gift of reinvention: for Linda and for us.

None of the other main characters find the same success. Most of them end up killed off by the chaos. Perhaps their failures are random, but that means some success will be random too, and that’s okay. We can live with that. Linda’s greed and vanity get her into the mess she gets into, but at least her greed is not the sort of dishonest, dissembling, gluttonous greed of George Clooney’s Harry. Linda just wants to find somebody to love. Like her, Harry is full of vanity, particularly as it relates to his gun (which he and everybody else always knows is a penis substitute), and he, too, is seeking love. But he’s a bad boy and his fate is to end up in a paranoid vortex of his own construction. His final scene with Linda in the park is a masterpiece of comic set-up, because various separate bits of information, precisely placed throughout the film, all converge to convince him that everybody is out to get him. The truth is exactly the opposite, but the effect of his delusion is congenial to everyone: he escapes to Venezuela. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t really want you to go away.

More, of course, could be said about all the connections and coincidences, the incorrect assumptions, misheard remarks, mistaken identities: the beautiful structures and balances of the film. But saying much more is too much like explaining a great joke. Jokes and movies shouldn’t mean, but be.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged at least to note one other level on which the film is working: that of metafiction. This is a movie that knows it’s a movie, and is all the better for it. First, it relishes our genre knowledge, the knowledge that produces expectations, those things that lead us astray. The title credit sequence could be that of a spy thriller: we zoom in from space as if from a surveillance satellite (topic for another time: compare the CIA in Burn After Reading to God in A Serious Man), the music is determinedly dramatic, the credits splay across the screen accompanied by the techno-tinkle sound associated (why?) with computer text, and we cut to serious feet walking seriously through the serious, antiseptic corridors of CIA headquarters. The music will be the key to the seriousness throughout—it cues big revelations, moments of drama, rising tensions. The comedy comes from the music’s misjudgment: the relevations are, more often than not, mundane, the drama banal, the tension easily diffused. (It’s music more appropriate to, for instance, the previous movie George Clooney and Tilda Swinton made, Michael Clayton.) The film has been scored to meet the characters’ expectations for the kind of story they want to be in. Little do they know that they’re in an entirely different film from the one they desire.

nullAnd then there’s Coming Up Daisy, the Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney movie-within-the-movie that Linda always takes her dates to. It is, apparently, a fluffy romance, a sappy fantasy of eternal love and perfect happiness and beautiful people. (The sort of fantasy that makes a woman like Linda hate herself and her life, the sort of fantasy that keeps many cosmetic surgeons in business.) Linda goes to the movie twice, once on a bad date (with Alan) and once on a date that seems to come out of just such a movie (with Harry). This is not the end of this reference, though. When Harry’s wife, Sandy, goes on a TV show in Seattle, one of the later guests is Dermot Mulroney. Harry is oblivious to his wife’s faithlessness, her ability to deceive him even more effectively than he thinks he is deceiving her—oblivious, in other words, to her agency. After Harry shoots Chad, he tries to make a salad for Katie, but only ends up chopping an enormous pile of carrots. In Seattle, though, Sandy kisses her boyfriend in the dressing room of the TV show while a segment about the “Sultan of Salad” plays above them. Sandy, it turns out, is the one character who lives in a world where fantasies of perfection are not quite so fantastical.

The casting of Burn After Reading also contributes to some of its metamovie touches: not just with the reuniting of Clooney and Swinton, but also, more slyly, with the appearance of David Rasche as a serious CIA man. Rasche is probably best known, at least to connoisseurs, for his starring role in the mid-’80s TV comedy Sledge Hammer!, a spoof of the Dirty Harry films in which Sledge’s solution to every problem is to shoot it with his giant gun. Sledge Hammer! makes even the broadest comedy in Burn After Reading look like a marvel of subtlety, but I know I can’t be the only viewer who, upon first seeing Rasche, immediately thought of his earlier character’s motto: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Many of the characters in Burn After Reading think the same thing, with similar results.

(Tangentially, I expect I’m also not the only viewer who, on seeing the name of the gym where Linda, Chad, and Ted work, thought of Susan Jeffords’ brilliant book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. Of Harry Callahan, Jeffords writes: “Harry’s heroism has a nihilistic edge to it that cannot reassure audiences that any of his actions have mattered or have changed the social order in any way.”)

Burn After Reading ends with The Fugs’ song “CIA Man,” and so the ending is, like everything else in the movie, perfect in its multiplicities of meaning:

Who’s the agency well-known to God?
The one that copped his staff and copped his rod?
Fucking-a man! CIA Man!

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.

Close Cuts: The Adaptation Process in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Close Cuts: The Adaptation Process in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

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That No Country For Old Men (2007) constitutes one of Cormac McCarthy’s “lesser” works probably says more about McCarthy’s genius than it does about the book’s individual strengths or weaknesses.  Nearly five years after its release, it stands beside great modern adaptations like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs. But the understated greatness of the movie, stemming as it does from the book, must be attributed to the Coen brothers as well, who were able to capture the heart of the book even after shedding some of its most key sections.

Cuts or no cuts, the Coens showed intense loyalty to McCarthy’s work in many ways.  With the exception of about ten scenes, they retained every bit of the book in one form or another, with one broad exception: the larger story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones).  The way they altered Sheriff Bell’s dialogue and development is a sterling example of their skillful adaptation of the book, their tightening of McCarthy’s story for the screen.

McCarthy structures the book so that Bell provides its backbone and, in fact, its title. While the movie was marketed around the charismatic characters, the resourceful Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the chilling Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), Sheriff Bell remains not just the main character, but the very moral compass of the narrative.  McCarthy shows Sheriff Bell’s disillusionment with the world around him through a series of thirteen internal monologues by Bell which open each chapter of the book.  In these monologues, Bell details his unease with life and the pervasive criminal brutality he sees, as well as his back story of painful service in World War II and the dead daughter who haunts him. Bell’s ruminations are long-winded, heavily descriptive, and often dryly monotonous and repetitious; it would probably be fair to say that they make up the weakest collective part of the book, though they remain crucial to McCarthy’s story. Leaving Bell’s monologues out of the movie was likely one of the Coens’ easier decisions.   

The Coens instead synthesized these segments, along with several of Bell’s other scenes, and any mention of his personal story, into three scenes which help the film retain the book’s core: Tommy Lee Jones’s outstanding scenes to open and close the film, and probably the movie’s most mysterious part, near the end, where Sheriff Bell “confronts” the killer Chigurh. 

The Coens solved the problem of how to implement these sections by whittling them down to their bare essence in the opening.  There, Sheriff Bell delivers a short monologue as he discusses his family’s law enforcement lineage, his distress with the crime by a boy he sent to the electric chair, and the larger growing violence of the age.  Constructed with parts of the book’s first, third and fourth chapters and delivered in Tommy Lee Jones’s gravelly, craggy voice as the film pans over the colorful, empty expanse of West Texas, the two minute opening is exquisite, to be watched over and over, and may be the film’s finest sequence.

We hear Sheriff Bell’s winsome, homey, nostalgia become an anxious description of the criminal violence he’s seen, melting into an open, dark despair of the coming storm – embodied seconds later when we see Chigurh viciously strangle a sheriff’s deputy and then shoot down a motorist like cattle.  The film’s ability to effect that difficult transition from McCarthy’s complex prose to the screen while fully retaining the book’s moral direction is a crucial reason for the film’s massive success.

One generally overlooked change the Coens made elsewhere, near the end of the film, further helped streamline the story.  The scene is also fairly mysterious and has vexed many audiences precisely because of how the Coens used it to unpack McCarthy’s text. More than just about any other scene from the book they retained, the Coens altered this scene significantly, and they did this for a central purpose.  They created a more dramatic sequence, yes, but used the scene and Sheriff Bell’s’s imagination to further distill the direction of the cut monologues and show Bell’s breakdown from stalwart veteran sheriff into a conflicted lawman.

The book and the film depict the same basic event in two very different ways, ultimately making the events themselves different. McCarthy’s telling of the scene provides guidance here. After Moss is killed, Sheriff Bell goes back to investigate Moss’s deserted motel room late at night. In the book, Bell approaches and enters the motel room as Chigurh watches him from his truck, driving off before the sheriff can find him. The Coens implemented another sequence.

In the film, Sheriff Bell sits in his cruiser, staring at the police tape and breathing uneasily, before getting out. The camera follows him on each heavy step to the turquoise door.  When Bell creeps up and sees the lock popped out—Chigurh’s calling card of entrance to a closed space via his ever-present cattle gun—he hesitates several times before holstering his gun.

A moment before he does enter, we see Chigurh with his frightening silenced shotgun held tight against his chest, the golden light of the disemboweled lock shaft shining just to his left, the clear intimation being that he is hiding in Moss’s room. A moment after this cutaway, Sheriff Bell pushes open the door, his dark shadow and lowered gun in silhouette against the ugly room. As the audience gasps for his safety, he moves around the room, then, finding no one, he settles on the bed and relaxes before seeing the cover of the vent on the floor, next to several screws and a discarded dime—a tell-tale sign that Chigurh took the case of money out of Moss’s standard hiding place after the police left the crime scene.

This scene begs, where was Chigurh and why didn’t he kill Bell? The answer holds significant implications for the Coens’ adaption.  Based on how we see Chigurh, he appears to be standing, and with light clearly on him, but when Bell enters, Chigurh is neither by the window nor possibly in the open, narrow vent. That leaves one possible hiding space: the door. Here the Coens tease the audience.  When Bell pushes open the door, we can’t see completely behind it, making it just possible that something—or someone—could be there. 

Chigurh may be there behind the door, waiting with his beer can-sized silencer, as the Coens’ clever hint never provides confirmation, but really they don’t have to. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s unlikely that the large killer, holding both his shotgun and the bulky briefcase full of two million dollars could ever fit. Some watchers have stretched to postulate that Chigurh is in the adjacent room.  These views miss the point, based on what the Coens are trying to do with this scene, behind their sleight of hand. 

In the book, Bell approaches and enters the room as Chigurh watches him from his truck, driving off before the sheriff can find him.  While we are led to believe that Chigurh is there, he is also used here as a product of Bell’s imagination, a creature growing out of his fears and revealing of his broader dread, established by the intro and negatively developed. Throughout the course of the movie, Bell has seen Chigurh’s heinous violence as he has murdered people in the coldest blood imaginable. Bell even refers to Chigurh as a ghost right before he goes back to the motel. But while Bell says "it's not that I'm afraid of" the crimes he sees in the opening, he clearly is afraid by the end. This change, developed by McCarthy through his thirteen monologues, is reduced by the Coens to their opening and this scene, where we see Bell relieved that Chigurh isn’t in the room, simultaneously realizing he can no longer serve. The scene leads into Sheriff Bell’s visit to his disabled Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin), where we learn Bell’s plans to retire.

The final scene, in which Bell reveals two disturbing dreams about his father—and his failure to live up to his legacy—and expresses fear about what is to come, is developed from McCarthy’s thirteenth and final monologue and is as poignant as the first scene is captivating. Interestingly, in an early version of the screenplay, the Coens intended the end of this scene to be given as a voiceover delivered around images of a snowy mountain pass, in much the same way as the beginning was done. Thankfully, they changed their minds, ultimately keeping the camera directly on Bell.  For it is better to see the despair on his haggard face than just to hear it. As he speaks, he is clearly affected and upset by his dreams, and at no point in the film has he looked weaker or more vulnerable than when he finishes and looks to his speechless wife for validation.

Adapting any book, particularly a rich, nuanced one, to screen is an immensely difficult balancing act; the director and screenwriter must create a watchable two-hour product but also can’t cut too much, so as not to risk sacrificing the book’s moral spirit. The Coens perform that balancing act brilliantly, for at that final frame, Tommy Lee Jones captures the soul of McCarthy’s foreboding book and wraps up the Coens’ perfect adaptation.

Mark Greenbaum's work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The LA Times, The New Republic, and other publications.

Trainwreck Rising, or Jeff, Who Is One with the Universe

Trainwreck Rising, Or Jeff, Who Is One with the Universe

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A problem—if not the problem—with stoner comedies is that they tend to lack ambition.  That is not simply, ha ha, that content follows topic, though it may be that the target audience is undemanding and easily entertained.  So there is no great mystery as to why potheads are happy to see themselves caricatured as good-natured goobers.  That's not inherently a bad thing.  There is comedic potential aplenty in watching the zonked try to cope with basic tasks, and/or gawping at outlandish situations that would test even the straight of brain.  Jeff, Who Lives At Home, the most recent effort from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, does not entirely break with this tradition.  The shape of what Netflix terms "late night comedies" is to set potheads on a basic task or vague mission and let it spiral out of control as wooly perception and altered cognition yank them through strings of cartoonish absurdities. Now, some of these stories meander more than others, some films have more on their minds than munchies and giggles, but that's the drill, from Up In Smoke (1978) to Dazed and Confused (1993) to Friday (1995) to Smiley Face (2007) to Harold and Kumar Do a Thing (2004/08/11).  For Jeff, Who Lives At Home that means sending its thirty-year-old pothead protagonist out of his mother's basement, ostensibly on an errand  to buy wood glue for a broken shutterbut really in search of something like the meaning of life.  It is in this concern with spiritual yearning that Jeff diverges from the pack: Jeff sees a world beset by mystical signals, and Jason Segel plays him as a big-hearted and hazy-headed Apatosaurus plodding through Baton Rouge on a vision quest.  The illuminated trail of bread crumbs will brush against Jeff's brother, Pat (Ed Helms, in rabid asshole mode), whose shambolic marriage is in mid-collapse, and their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon, giving good put-upon), who is feeling, of late, that life has passed her by.

Before we get too far afield, an assessment.  Jeff, Who Lives At Home is fairly begging to be called "sweet," and tends toward pandering, cornball Apatow-esque Within-Every-Slob-a-Heart-of-Gold reassurances.  Whether or not one has use for the Duplass brothers' wobbly, zero-discipline technique, they have stood their ground, trademark unmotivated micro-zooms intact, as they moved from backyard productions The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008) to larger-scale pictures boasting bona fide comedy stars and studio distribution.  Appreciate it or find it nauseating, the style, such as it is, sort of works to convey the POV of a blurred mind snapping into occasional focus, particularly in early scenes as Jeff blazes up, and that's not supposed to be a backhanded compliment.  If we indulge in some fuzzy, speculative thinking of our own, consider that, as the independent film boom of the early '90s bloated into the corporate-backed pseudo-indie debauch of the late millennium, the Sundance Picture became the indie equivalent of White Telephone cinema—award-magnetic, pre-sold, and bourgeoisie-approved.  That might make early-'00s mumblecore a scruffy, apolitical analog to Italian neorealism.  If mumblecore might be considered a "movement," it is a one without organization or manifestos in French cinejournals, but one striving for a de-glammed mopey slice-of-life naturalism in subject and form.  What we have here and now, then, is not unlike the encroaching froth and bosomy movie stars that marked the shift to Neorealismo Rosa: the presence of Susan Sarandon heralds the emergence of Pink Mumblecore. (That’s an idea for a Trends In Early 21st Century Cinema paper that you can have for free!)

While the stoner comedy tends towards pointless shaggy dog tales, aesthetic indifference, and, most criminally, frequent un-funniness, they can provide a nice counterpoint to goal-driven Hollywood storytelling.  Cases in point: The Big Lebowski (1998) and Signs (2002). A stoner comedy by default, but so much more, The Big Lebowski does The Long Goodbye (1973) one better or maybe backwards, as Joel and Ethan Coen lovingly satirize Raymond Chandler by ramping up the writer's excessive plot convolutions, widening the menagerie of eccentrics, and suggesting that the ideal detective for such a carnival would be as freewheeling and open-minded as possible: enter The Dude.  As the plot twists, misfortunes and desperate motives of hardboiled fiction pile up, The Dude (another Jeff) shuffles through the maze with a head clouded by mother's-milky vodka, Good Shit, and sunshine.  By the climax, the central kidnapping plot doesn't burn out so much as fade away.  There was no kidnapping, no real ransom, and everyone was faking it but The Dude, whose tumbleweed approach to detective work indeed makes him the man for his time and place.  He tries to focus on the clues, but they go up in smoke.

There is no central mystery in Jeff, Who Lives At Home, either—or there are mysteries, but they are small-scaled and life-sized: Is My Wife Having an Affair? (Pat), Who Is My Secret Admirer? (Sharon), What Is My Purpose In the Cosmic Plan? (Jeff).  Still, Jeff is about clues.  The manner in which these conflicts unfold and entwine depends on how characters divine meaning from the signals they are/aren't picking up.  Thus, Pat spends the day stalking his wife, Linda (Judy Greer, fuming throughout, topped off with a showcase meltdown), with Jeff in tow, tracking her and following leads, and he confronts her pre-tryst, rather than trying to open healthier channels of communication.  Sharon sits in her cubicle at work, feeling lonely, unfulfilled and, in a desperate moment, will say she "hates" her sons.  Sharon is indeed being sent messages—anonymous Instant Messages and sailing paper airplanes containing flirty notes—and tries to sniff out the culprit.  Jeff, meanwhile, sees every object, action and word as laden with portent.  Blame M. Night Shyamalan.

When we meet Jeff, he is alone and giving a reverent monologue about the subtle beauties and comforting philosophy of Shyamalan's alien invasion/family drama/Twilight Zone thriller, Signs.  A problem—if not the problem—with Signs is that it scoops together a mountain of frayed genre clichés and plot contrivances so lazy that they become outrageous, then expects surprise and blown minds from the audience when everything plays out exactly as expected.  Will a priest who has lost his faith manage to find it again when he is splattered with a barrage of miracles?  Gee, I dunno, man.  If everything snaps into place, people are always where they need to be, everything is foreshadowed and no props go unused, is that evidence of God's Plan or does it simply show that God is a hack screenwriter? Signs is reverse-engineered in a way that is either disingenuous or dumb.  As a primo example of how he reads the film, Jeff says his favorite character is the daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, who cannot manage to drink a whole glass of water, thus littering the house with half-full glasses, thus providing the means of destroying the hydrophobic aliens at the end.  Another way to read this might be that a clumsy attempt at characterization by way of cutesy quirk leads to a nonsensical plot point that does not hold up under scrutiny.  Anyhow, Spoiler Alert: Jeff, Who Lives At Home starts by spoiling the end of Signs.

As our hero hits the bong, an infomercial tells him to "pick up the phone" just as it rings.  In Signs-land there are no wrong numbers, so when the belligerent caller asks for Kevin, Jeff follows a trail of Kevins—a basketball jersey, a candy truck—in search of destiny.  Weed is particularly good at fostering this kind of augury-rich vision, at scrubbing the texturing from the Matrix avatars to show the code running the show.  The problem is that weed is not good at spurring one to action, and tends to strip away necessary coping filters (psychedelics, of course, are even better for popping the top off the universe, the cons also magnified in force).  The world's Jeffs might well receive revelation through spliff, television and Pop-Tart, but it has to be carried off the couch, out of Mom's basement, and into the world.

It's like the birds, you see?  Jeff keeps looking at birds flying overhead, squinting serenely at those airborne souls that also rhyme, visually, with the paper plane aimed at his mother's heart, and with a helicopter he will see later.  The film does not directly address the ultimate cheat of Signs, but provides a sort of balance to Shyamalan's sleight-of-hand.  Jeff moves through a chain of coincidence with increasingly dramatic consequences, and in the climax achieves some traditional screen-ready heroism.  His personal motivation may be in sign-hunting, but sometimes causality is completely mundane, and the most important sign read is simply that when there are rescue aircraft in the sky, someone is in trouble.  Regardless of what one has just smoked, or opinions of mumbled-jumbled mysticism, what goes on in a good Tarot reading, dream analysis, or therapy session is not so different.  When the characters in Jeff, Who Lives At Home open themselves to the Signs, their most important work is in making themselves receptive to signals given off by other people, and contemplating an open-ended set of symbols that reflect back on themselves.  When one throws some light on the path, it becomes much easier to stay on track or choose to plot a new course.  Where Shyamalan rubs his characters' faces in incontrovertible predestination, the Duplasses give their cast the freedom to act on such signals as they see fit, and soar or fail based on those choices.

Jeff is looking for a mission, but he seems to be missing the biggest sign.  He already has a mission.  His mother wants him to go to the hardware store.  In a way, his mission is even smaller than Pat's quest to save his marriage, or Sharon's midlife sorta-crisis.  In a scene at the heart of the film, Jeff and Pat stand in the cemetery where their father is buried.  The brothers have had terrible days by any standard.  Pat has crashed the new Porsche that he can't afford; Jeff has been beaten up and mugged.  Both recall dreams in which their dad asks, "What is the greatest day in the history of the world?"  Pat sees this as evidence of a forgotten, shared memory.  Jeff sees synchronicity.  Mysterious either way, no?  They both have an opportunity here to remember the Invisible Father's message: today is the greatest day in the history of the world.

On this greatest of days, Jeff, who lives at home, will haul his ass out of the house, inadvertently heal his family relationships, and more.  But what of the wood glue?  Whether you can—or even want to—read the Signs or not, the Signs don't get any gluing done, no matter how high you are.  The gentle joke of the title itself is that we do, indeed, all live at home.  It's just that sometimes it takes a Jeff to recognize that.  Do not wonder where your place is in the universe.  You are in it right now.

Chris Stangl lives, writes, paints, draws comics, and drinks coffee in Los Angeles. Besides designing the Press Play logo, he has done sundry artwork for Meltdown Comics, The Steve Allen Theater, the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, musician Old Man Charlie, and illustrated the humor book The Explosexuawesome Career Guide. He blogs on film and television at The Exploding Kinetoscope. Like all native Californians, he comes from Iowa.