Burn After Reading
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2008
#11, 2008 Skandies

This is a Pattern 20 movie that exists pretty much entirely so the filmmakers can say, "Wow, these unpleasant idiots we made up sure are unpleasant idiots, aren't they?"

Mike Leigh, 2008
#12, 2008 Skandies

I'd read ahead of time that this movie takes the always risky tack of presenting an unlikable main character and then gradually redeeming her, which was good to know ahead of time because, man, the beginning of this movie is hard to take. In this case the unlikability comes in the form of a grating, ditzy chirpiness — she's the sort of person who pesters you to smile as she passes you in the street. "Can't be as bad as all that, can it?" And in my case, Pattern 23 kicked in and I spent most of the movie literally cringing at the characters' mannerisms. For instance, they all speak in nothing but questions, don't they? A paralyzing fear of making a simple declarative statement has swept the country, has it? People terrified of taking an unequivocal stand, are they? Or perhaps it's insecurity manifesting as a need to receive reassurance that the listener agrees after every sentence, is it? Or it sprang from this sort of neurosis and then devolved into a verbal tic, you think? At least the Canadians are more efficient about it, eh?

(Also, what's with the refusal to pronounce "th" sounds? You're the ones who decided to have interdental fricatives in the language! Are you protesting against the Norman scribes who did away with eth and thorn or something?)

Anyway, the redemption of the character comes in a series of scenes in which she proves to have a gift for reading people and reaching out to them: an elementary-school bully, a crazy homeless guy, a choleric driving instructor from the black-helicopters school. These scenes are indeed worth watching, and moments like the one in which the protagonist gets a very thoughtful look and comes out with an incisive question — "Are you an only child, Scott?" — almost make up for scenes like the post-concert screechfest early on. Just as noteworthy are the scenes that don't appear: the protagonist never has her worldview shaken by sudden tragedy, is never revealed to be crying on the inside, none of the clichéd turns you might expect. Do a remake set in Los Angeles and I might even be able to recommend it.

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