Coen brothers: No country for smart men

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

In February, the Coen brothers swept the writing, directing and Best Picture categories at the Oscars with the somber, violent No Country for Old Men. The same night, Tilda Swinton walked away with a statuette for Best Supporting Actress in the weighty drama Michael Clayton.

This past weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, they all sat together at a press conference, joined by Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, to talk about something ridiculous.

That'd be the latest from the Coens, Burn After Reading, a comedy about a disgruntled CIA analyst (Malkovich), his cheating wife (Swinton), her philandering lover (George Clooney) and the clueless gym employees (Frances McDormand and Pitt) who try to blackmail the analyst after stumbling across a disc holding his grudge memoir.

"We don't relate one movie to another, because why would we?" Joel Coen said of the move from the dark to the absurd. "You don't want to repeat yourself."

Asked about its D.C. setting, he said, "We sort of wanted to do a spy movie. I don't think it really turned out that way. Like most of our stuff, it's not really meant to be a comment on Washington as it is about these particular characters."

"It's not a comment on other people; it's not a part of ourselves we'd disavow," brother Ethan added. "We all have the inner knucklehead. It's good fodder for stories."

For Pitt and Swinton, the movie offered another chance to work with friend and Coen-cast regular Clooney.

"I'm working on having George Clooney in every contract," Swinton said, adding, "George and I do aim one day to be in a movie where we're nice to each other."

"And I'm working on stealing Tilda away from George," said Pitt, mentioning their upcoming film together, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Given a remarkably doofy character with awful highlights and a spandex wardrobe, Pitt was asked how he felt about playing such a fool for his first outing with the Coens. His eyes going a little blank, he said, "I'm surprised about that too ... I don't understand."

"No, I've been knocking on the brothers' door for a few years, so I was really happy when they called, and then I read the piece and I was a little upset again."

Talking character inspiration, Pitt said, "That was all me in a former day. [Seriously], it's a mystery to me and I'm somewhat disturbed by it all. My other half is disturbed by it as well."

Pitt's skunk stripe is part of a parade of hair-don'ts in the movie, from a blond bob for McDormand fashioned after Linda Tripp to a helmet for Swinton inspired by The Simpsons.

"Yeah, we had a kind of competition on the set for who had the most ridiculous hair," she said. "I think [Brad] might have won that. We were all going for the Javier Bardem prize, and I went down the Mrs. Krabappel route, sort of a red thing."

The distinctive characteristic of Malkovich's character is based in the verbal instead of the follicles. He's got a propensity - and a talent - for deploying the F-bomb.

Quiet and deadpan, the actor said, "Profanity, I think, most specifically the F-bomb, it's not as expressive as, say, 'dude,' but it's an incredibly expressive word that can mean anything or nothing or anything in between. And it's always fun to drop one."

When asked about playing a character less intelligent than oneself, Malkovich said he doesn't pass that kind of judgment.

"I don't think this man is brighter or less bright than I am," he said. "We have the great misfortune to hear some excerpts from his book, and yes, I can say that's not a book I would rush out and buy, but I haven't written a book myself so I shouldn't really comment."

Judgment came up again with the question of a possible backlash from audiences and critics over the Coens' choice to follow up No Country with something so irredeemably silly. To this Ethan replied, "Well, you'd rather people like it, including even critics."