George Clooney = B+
The first of many performances in which the Coens have discerned the strengths of an actor and used them; and used them well. In Clooney's case it is his equal levels of charm, and in this case, smarm. However, one of Clooney's strengths that I hadn't seen before, even in his other Coen collaborations, is his gift for kooky and completely batshit crazy comedy. Nowhere is this more evident than his final scene, where he plays out the most hilarious mad scene of the year; deer in the headlights and all. He never quite disappears into the role, but that hardly matters in a role that was clearly tailormade for him; it's a riproaringly hilarious performance in a film full of them.
Brad Pitt = B+
Pitt is an actor I find to be both overrated and underrated at the same time; overrated because I don't find him to be anywhere near as attractive or as charming as his tabloid prominence would suggest, and underrated because he's a much better actor than people give him credit for. Without seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I can call this my favourite of his performances ever. It's hardly a deep performance, but it's one that has a rich and detailed surface, and above that: It's a very intelligently comic performance of a very stupid and sweet character. To his immense credit, he doesn't try and make Chad seem smart in another way, this character is just plain stupid. And like Jennifer Tilly's inimitable performance in Bullets Over Broadway, Pitt shows us what an achievement it is to play stupid in a performance with detail and nuance.
Frances McDormand = A-
My favourite performance in the film, not by a long shot; but by a noticeable lead. McDormand's Linda is stupid in a way that is endearing and heartwarming. Not only that, but like the other performances in the film; this is a consummate comic achievement. Giving the Coens credit for what is a very funny character and script; the entirety of the Russian debacle cracks me up even a day after seeing the film for the second time; McDormand makes Linda so much more funnier than the script ever imagined her to be, I think. On top of that, McDormand's performance is full of little moments that speaks oodles of this woman's comic talent; both viewings of the movie, the phonecall, the car 'chase'. Move this movie up to a November release, and she would have cinched an Oscar nomination. (Speaking of which, can we exchange her North Country nomination for this in the history books? Please?)
John Malkovich = C
Now we come to my least favourite performance of the bunch. I'm going to be blunt here, I don't like Malkovich as an actor, I don't think he's talented and although his specific brand of acting worked wonders in Dangerous Liaisons and Being John Malkovich, it does not work all the time. His face is mysteriously inert, his line-readings far too forthright and his performance lacks any real depth. But, it works somewhat for the character that Malkovich doesn't aim for any comedy, instead counting on the script and narrative to provide the laughs. But, Malkovich is the weakest link in a hilarious cast. An extra point is taken away for being so far overshadowed by Tilda Swinton in the scenes they share.
Tilda Swinton = B+/A-
I feel like this is a bit of favouritism; Swinton is the most talented actress of her generation. Bar none. The woman spins gold from straw, and when she's given gold, she spins whatever-is-better-than-gold from it. She's not handed a particularly funny role here, but her performance is hilarious in so many points. My favourite choice of hers is that she didn't aim to make her character sympathetic in any way; she's a 'cold stuck-up bitch' as the script calls her and we don't believe any different. Her deadpan style is hysterical in a way that Malkovich's is not; you get that she understands the gags and their meaning in a way that Malkovich simply doesn't. And, to borrow a term from Nick Davis, she completely 'Streeps' this performance; there's more moment-for-moment acting than the script ever imagined. Best moment: When she's asked to wait a day to see if she'll get divorced, she does this little movement with her head that I just giggled at. Overall; a great comic performance from an actress who doesn't do enough comedies.
Other Notable Performances:
JK Simmons - Simmons is gifted with a very brief, but hilarious role around at the end of the second act and then closing the film; and brilliantly sums up the movie: "So what did we learn?" A very good turn around from his usual, admittedly decent, schtick on The Closer
Overall Movie Grade: (A-)