Somewhere between 1996's virtuoso "Fargo" and 1998's "The Big Lebowski,"
writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen suddenly lost their flare for memorably
acerbic characters and exciting storytelling. And between "The Big Lebowski" and
their latest work, the black-and-white film noir, "The Man Who Wasn't There,"
they seemingly have lost everything else that used to be so strikingly seminal
about their motion picture forays.
Plodding and tragically uneven, "The Man Who Wasn't There" stars Billy Bob
Thornton (2001's "Bandits
") as quiet, weary barber Ed Crane. The time is the mid-1940s, and Ed spends his days endlessly cutting hair, and his nights with
aloof wife Doris (Frances McDormand), an unloving woman with a penchant for
alcohol and bingo-playing. When Ed discovers for himself that Doris is carrying
on an affair with her department store boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), he uses
it as a way to blackmail Big Dave for $10,000, inexplicably setting off a chain
of events that include lies, deceit, and murder.
The premise may initially sound like an intriguing enough way to spend two
hours, particularly under the guide of the offbeat Coen brothers, but the film
is so overstuffed with subplots, crummily written supporting characters, and a
needlessly sluggish pace that it falls apart within the opening hour and just
gets worse from there. The screenplay, by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a surprisingly
feeble one that intentionally resembles a '40s-style noir thriller, but without
a single person to even remotely like or get behind in their plight.
Additionally, the story hints at potential, yet has been done with a far surer
hand than the lackadaisical one offered here.
Billy Bob Thornton has a difficult job in portraying Ed Crane, who is in every
scene. Thornton is excellent, giving the type of nuanced performance that you
rarely ever see. Ed is a listless, passive man who does little more than chain
smoke to mask his utter boredom out of life. Unfortunately, no matter how good
Thornton is in the role, the character he must play is so dull and passive that
he bogs down everything around him, making the entire movie a bore.
Every other actor is window-dressing to Thornton, a shame considering all of the
fine actors on board. Frances McDormand (2000's "Almost Famous
"), so brilliant in "Fargo," plays the one-note part of Doris, while the usually reliable James Gandolfini (2001's "The Last Castle
") disappears quickly from the proceedings. The only effective section of the film involves a teenage girl named Birdy
(Scarlett Johansson), whom Ed meets while she is beautifully playing Beethoven
on the piano. Johansson (2001's "Ghost World
") gets some good moments, and the desperation Ed acquires over her musical talent is subtly touching, but this
entire plot thread is thrown away by the end without any sort of satisfying
"The Man Who Wasn't There" makes an attempt to fall into the thriller genre, but
it lacks urgency or any apparent interest outside of Thornton's acting. At 117
minutes, the film is so slow-moving that it could have easily been cut down to
90. Roger Deakins' black-and-white cinematography is sumptuously gorgeous,
believably appearing to have been filmed sixty years ago, but his efforts are
ultimately all for naught. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is not strong filmmaking,
nor even an admirable attempt. Knowing that such a wasteful project was done by
such talents as Joel and Ethan Coen makes the outcome all the more
©2001 by Dustin Putman