WHAT A GOOF – by Bob Thompson
Brad Pitt hasn’t played a truly goofy character since, well, we can’t remember when. It took the Coen brothers to bring out the goof in the big star for their caper comedy Burn After Reading, a film that also taps into the silly sides of Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Pitt’s pal George Clooney.
After the ulrelenting bleakness of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning crime thriller No Country for Old Men, a crafty little comedy called Burn After Reading seemed like the right thing to do.
‘I thought so,’ says Joel, looking over at his brother Ethan during an interview at the Beverly Hills Four Season Hotel last October, just after they had wrapped Burn After Reading. The Coen say they were happy to pack up their movie belongings in Texas, they shot No Country, and move them to Brooklyn Heights, near their New York homes, to film the spy-caper romp.
The film has John Malkovich playing Ozzie Cox, an old CIA who is unceremoniously fired because of a drinking problem. For revenge, he pens a dangerous memoir and saves it on a disc, only to have that disc stolen by his soon-to-be-ex-wife Katie (Tilda Swinton).
Of course, she loses the disc at a Washington, DC gym where a self-involved trainer, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), and the gym’s owner, Linda Litzk (Frances McDormand), find it and decide to blackmail Cox.
Enter one Harry Pfarrer, played by George Clooney, Harry’s a sex addict and a federal marshal who’s sleeping with Katie. He stumbles into the blackmail mess via an online dating service. One incompetent move leads to another as the players fail to outplay each other as they plot and plan and screw up along the way.
No wonder Clooney’s inolved. The exaggerated tone and style is reminiscent of his previous Coen Brothers comedies O Brother, Where Art Though? and Intolerable Cruelty. Of course, Pitt’s a buddy of Clooney’s from the Ocean’s series of heist movies, so the pairing was a good fit.
While the asting Clooney and Pitt seems just about right, both Coens shrug off the good fortune. ‘It was all about the availability of the actors we wanted,’ says Joel. ‘It’s that simple.’
Simple’s the operative word when it comes to Clooney. He said ‘yes’ to Burn After Reading with a nod, script unread, the Coens say. On set, he’s just as casual. ‘The last two movies we’ve done with George have been the same sort of thing,’ notes Joel. ‘Our whole discussion of each character took place in about five minutes before we started shooting. Same again with Burn After Reading.
Pitt was a different story for more logistical reasons. His partner Angelina Jolie and their brood of children, including their then 15-month-old daughter, had busy agendas (and this was before the twins). Somehow, Pitt found a way to wedge the Coen Brothers movie into his schedule from late August to Mid-October of last year.
‘It’s worth it,’ Pitt says, while taking a break from shooting Burn to attend last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Why the Coens? Pitt says that while ‘it’s true’ that his friend Clooney can be persuasive, there was more to it than that. ‘I just want to work with people that I like and respect. The Coen elements add to the flavour of the film,’ he says, ‘but I don’t choose according to just that.
‘It’s always story first,’ he insists. ‘It’s the story and the storyteller, which is what I feed on.’
And no, he says, smirking a little, he didn’t take a lot of advice from renowned joker Clooney about how to work with the Coens. ‘We don’t spend much time on advice, or we never get to it,’ suggests Pitt of his pal. ‘Too many good-natured insults get in the way.’
So are the Coens willing to compare Pitt and Clooney’s acting styles? Ethan is, ‘George likes to get things done before dinner,’ he says.
On the other hand.. ‘Brad struggles a little bit more in trying to find the right thing,’ reports Ethan. ‘I think Brad’s whole character came together from a botched dye job for a commercial he was about to do. He arrived on set that day and we all looked at it, and we all said, ‘Oh, okay. That’s the guy,’ says Ethan, smiling.
As humourous as that anecdote may be, Clooney understands that Pitt should not be underestimated in any role.
‘In fairness, I’ll tell you he’s a really brave actor, which is an interesting thing,’ Clooney says during a press conference also at last year’s film festival in Toronto. ‘People don’t often say that enough about him.
But Clooney does. In fact, he pretends he’s a little irked by Pitt’s Burn After Reading performance. ‘He’s a doing stuff in it that kills me,’ says Clooney. ‘He’s going to steal the movie and I’m going to murder him.’
In fact, Pitt is most proud of creating from both sides of the camera.
While filming Burn After Reading in New York he was also producing The Time Traveler’s Wife with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams in Toronto.
‘It was nice to be attached to a movie in a lower profile way,’ says Pitt, who quietly visited the Toronto set a few times in the fall.
So it seems that despite all of the media scrutiny that has come with his high profile relationship and his growing swarm of children, Pitt’s career goals have not gone ignored. Indeed, he thinks his personal responsibilities have helped him refine his professional objectives.
‘I’m working on things that I’m interested in and I’ve got the family first, which actually makes me enjoy the work more,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel defined by the work in any way, so I feel free to just follow what’s interesting to me.’