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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

They went and did it again

The Man Who Wasn't There

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Barber
Director: Joel Coen
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Opens April 27

A truly great artist knows how to riff on a theme: You could drop any old jazz standard on John Coltrane -- "Summertime," for one -- let him rip, and he'd make it his own. The same is true for the Coen brothers -- give 'em a crime flick, a little bit of blackmail and murder, and they'll jam out an entirely original version of this familiar material.

News photo
Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Polito in "The Man Who Wasn't There"

Joel and Ethan Coen have been here before, with their debut "Blood Simple" and their Oscar-winner "Fargo," while similar themes of pulp/noir also wound through "The Big Lebowski" (where they were used to great piss-taking effect). So it's easy to suppose that the Coens' latest, "The Man Who Wasn't There," might be something like a 1980s Pink Floyd record: a strained grasp at past glory, stuck in an old groove but with half the vigor.

Au contraire. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a perfect example of how artists can develop organically, giving you a shot of What-You-Expect, with a chaser of Something-New. We know the Coens can handle both hard-boiled noir and canny homages to classic film styles, but they've never done either as obsessively as they do here -- as was recognized at Cannes last year, where Joel Coen won Best Director. Their film draws you in, like smoke through a water pipe, into a black-and-white version of insular '50s suburbia, hermetically sealed within the long shadow of Expressionist dread: Film noir has rarely looked this, well, .

The Coens have as their hero a classic noir archetype: a bland, everyman loser whose dreams get too big for his own good (readers of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson will instantly recognize the type). Billy Bob Thornton plays barber Ed Crane like Jimmy Stewart on lithium, a passionless blank laconically dragging on his cigarettes while secretly imagining a life that's not so soul-killing.

His brother-in-law (Michael Badalucco), who owns the Santa Rosa barbershop where Ed works, is an annoyingly superficial blabbermouth; his wife, Doris (Frances MacDormand), is a wannabe social-climber, whose schmoozing with her department-store boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) involves more than just social dinners. Ed doesn't care much for talking, and as for sex, he seems coolly -- dare I say queerly? -- ambivalent. When he becomes aware of his wife's affair with beefy, garrulous Dave, he can only muse, "It's a free country," like even the words aren't worth saying.

In what seems like the apogee of existential stoicism, Ed Crane is a man beyond caring about anything. Except one thing, and that's getting out. When he catches wind of Doris' affair, he decides to secretly blackmail Big Dave to the tune of $10,000. Ed impulsively plans on investing the ill-gotten money with one of his customers, a shyster named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito, a Coen brothers regular), who plans to make a mint off the newfangled technology of dry cleaning.

This being film noir, I don't need to tell you that things don't work out well, and Ed's half-baked plans result in a stone-cold corpse. Ed looks like he'll walk away from it all, while suspicion falls elsewhere, but fate has a few cruel twists in store. Ed's Humbert Humbert-style fascination with an acquaintance's daughter, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson, "Ghost World"), certainly speeds up his one-way ticket to doom . . .

Wrapped in the suffocating shadows of cinematographer Michael Deakins' exquisitely composed tableaux, this flick may seem as dark and angst-ridden as Thornton's stone-faced demeanor. But this being the Coen brothers, there's a wicked current of sly humor running just beneath the surface. Most of the minor characters are played for laughs, and there are some fantastically motor-mouthed performances (a la "The Hudsucker Proxy"): John Polito's dodgy "entrepreneur" echoes McDonalds' founder Ray Kroc in his sweaty dreams of dominating a new market; while Tony Shalhoub, playing a hot-shot lawyer to rival Eddie Cochran, fashions a defense out of nothing more than Heidegger's uncertainty principle: "Looking at something changes it," he purrs. "The more you look, the less you know."

That's certainly true of Thornton's Ed, a cipher nearly beyond our comprehension. Some critics have taken an interesting angle on "The Man Who Wasn't There," going so far as to label it "anti-noir." Certainly, if film noir is based on the notion that its subjects are invariably victims of their desires and -- especially -- lusts, then Ed Crane doesn't fit the bill. This man just doesn't give a damn about anything: his wife's infidelity, the act of murder, even the temptation of jailbait.

But viewing Ed as the ultimate existential anti-hero -- a man who's utterly alone and doomed to nothing -- ignores the act of kindness he attempts to bestow upon Birdy, helping her succeed as a pianist. His own dreams may be only a fading ember, but Ed still has the spark for someone else, the desire to get a yet-unspoiled innocent out of this rotten, stifling suburbia. Little does he know, the poor sap. Like I said, this is noir.


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