"Don't you see, the complexity is what makes it all so brilliant!" For those who found Inception simply annoying and convoluted, those jokers at CollegeHumor have recently produced the instructional video "Inception Characters Don't Understand Inception". In it, an increasingly confused actress who looks nothing like Ellen Page attempts to get her head round the movie's labyrinthine plot and interlocking dream sequences. (My advice: don't bother.) Unlike Christopher Nolan's movie, I found this skit very entertaining and it has a great payoff. But I can't help thinking that the Coen brothers had a much better solution for explaining what had been going on, when they cast J.K. Simmons in the equally baffling Burn After Reading.
In the Coens' film, Simmons (as the blandly named "CIA Superior") and his sidekick Palmer (played by David Rasche) perform the function of a Greek chorus. In other words, their scenes attempt to make sense of the bizarre plot of this screwball comedy, while simultaneously highlighting the absurdity of it all. As the great Roger Ebert puts it: "The boss [Simmons] doesn't have much dialogue, but every line is a punch line."
It's hard to watch the end of Burn After Reading without wondering how many other movies would be improved by the addition of Simmons exclaiming "Jesus, what a clusterf***". In just a few minutes of screen time, Jonathan Kimble Simmons demonstrates why he is Hollywood's number one "cut to the chase" guy. He's the dude with the permanently furrowed brow, who sits behind a desk or in the boardroom railing at the utter stupidity around him.
For some people the ultimate (male) movie star would have Johnny Depp's cheekbones, Brad Pitt's torso, George Clooney's honeyed tones and — of course — a great head of hair. He'd have Angelina waiting at home, along with a clutch of gorgeous, photogenic kids and a brace of Oscars. His salary would be at least $20 million per picture, but he probably wouldn't be a Scientologist.
To my knowledge, J.K. Simmons does not currently fulfil any of these criteria, though his piercing blue eyes, wolfish grin, and dry wit came close to upstaging Messrs Pitt and Clooney in Burn After Reading. Despite clocking up almost 100 TV and film credits since the mid-'80s, the 55-year-old actor may yet have escaped your attention unless you happen to be a fan of shows like Oz, Law & Order, and The Closer.
You need a strong stomach just to get through the opening credits sequence of HBO's unflinchingly violent prison drama, Oz. I've only watched one series, but a single episode would be more that enough to get the measure of Simmons's repellent white supremacist, serial rapist, and general bad-ass, Vernon Schillinger. His sadistic exploits make Tony Soprano and his crew look like a bunch of choirboys, but the actor's comedic gifts are also in evidence as he berates fellow inmates for mispronouncing his name.