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Weekend Boxoffice: Why Coens Burn Up B.O.

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 18, 2008 at 8:14AM

Am I the only one surprised by how well Burn After Reading is doing at the boxoffice? Remember, before No Country for Old Men, the Coens were hit or miss at the boxoffice, mostly miss. They were lucky if their pics got to $25 million! So why is this nihilistic nasty little movie doing so well? Even those who figured the CIA comedy would open on star power and marketing prowess didn't think it would actually play with audiences. But clearly, it is--prognosticators expect the movie to score this weekend, again!
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Am I the only one surprised by how well Burn After Reading is doing at the boxoffice? Remember, before No Country for Old Men, the Coens were hit or miss at the boxoffice, mostly miss. They were lucky if their pics got to $25 million! So why is this nihilistic nasty little movie doing so well? Even those who figured the CIA comedy would open on star power and marketing prowess didn't think it would actually play with audiences. But clearly, it is--prognosticators expect the movie to score this weekend, again!

Several theories explain this unexpected b.o. phenomenon:

1. It's the stars, stupid.

Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt. He's hilarious in the trailers and TV spots. And he and George Clooney--as a womanizer, just the way women want him--are playing bumbling fools, just like the rest of us. The range of hideous hairdos may have been another factor. Tilda Swinton joked at the Burn After Reading press conference in Toronto that she was chasing the Javier Bardem bad haircut prize--but that Pitt had won it. Face it, the Coens grabbed a money cast.

2. If you make them laugh, they will come.

Again, the movie is funny, which was clear in all the marketing materials. And as Colin Firth confessed to Peter Bart re: Mamma Mia, all the stars in this movie seem to be having a grand old time. No one has had more fun spewing f-words than John Malkovich.

3. The Fran McDormand factor.

Audiences love her, as demonstrated by another surprise hit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. She warms up the place. She gives the freezing cold Coens some heart, a little light in the darkness--even if she does set the whole crazy plot in motion because she wants plastic surgery.

4. Audiences like filmmakers to break the rules.

This movie violates more conventional Hollywood rules and regs than I can tell you--mainly, it keeps killing off people you've come to like. And nobody seems to mind. Hollywood studios, take note.

5. No Country for Old Men widened the Coen's fanbase.

Clearly, adapting Cormac McCarthy's genre-friendly modern western and going all the way to the Oscars to the tune of $74 million made the Coens more of a household word. The movie hit the zeitgeist just right with Javier Bardem's implacable force-of-darkness villain. And somehow Burn After Reading is hitting it too. As institutions crumble all around us and few authority figures seem to have any reasonable solutions, the movie's message that nobody knows anything--nor cares--is right on target.

6. It's the best movie out there.

Burn After Reading opened against a particularly weak field of competitors, from the remake of The Women (which only made Focus Features target the femme audience more fiercely) to the DeNiro/Al Pacino pairing, Righteous Kill. BTW, Focus spent a small fortune marketing this baby.

All of which helps to explain why Burn After reading still looks strong heading into the weekend. Lakeview Terrace is a movie I have no desire to see (it just seems too unpleasant, and scored a 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and Dane Cook and Kate Hudson in the R-rated and not-screened My Best Friend's Girl is another must-to-avoid. I hear good things about Ghost Town (tracking 80% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), especially Ricky Gervais, but it's not expected to open strongly. Nor is Ed Harris's Appaloosa (64 % on Rotten Tomatoes), which I missed in Toronto and can't wait to see (Viggo Mortensen is in it). There aren't too many of us western fans left, and we must support the cause.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

This article is related to: Directors, Headliners, Box Office, Coens, Javier Bardem


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.