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The Man Who Wasn't There

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Man Who Wasn't There

Starring: Billy Bob Thorton, James Gandolfini
Director: Joel Coen
Rated: R
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Jon Polito, Adam Alexi-Malle, Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Raimi

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, by the acclaimed Coen brothers, director and co-writer Joel and co-writer Ethan, is an exquisite film noir shot on fine grain color stock and printed in gorgeous and expressive black and white. The movie premiered at this year's Cannes film festival, where it tied for the Best Director Award. If it can be argued that the Coen brothers' pictures are an acquired taste, I guess that most people are still acquiring it. I've liked films of theirs that most others didn't (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), hated some that got mixed reviews (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU) and loved some that just about everybody loved (FARGO).

In THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, Billy Bob Thornton is the movie. He is not only the lead character, Ed Crane, but also the story's constant narrator, which is handy since Ed's a taciturn kind of guy. If a building were in flames, he'd probably stay silent, figuring that, if he waits, someone else will yell, "Fire!" Thornton's minimalist performance is perhaps the best piece of acting that he's ever done. Every time he appears on the screen, it is as if time freezes. He's mesmerizing in the part.

Ed's the second chair barber in a small Northern California town. Set in the late 1940s, when land yachts still had some class, the movie takes place mainly in interior settings, although the few cruises down the country roads form the film's most impressive visuals.

Ed doesn't have much ambition, and his only desire in life would probably be for people to stop gabbing so much. This all changes one day when a seedy stranger, Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), comes into town with a "business proposition." With his bad toupee, poorly fitting suit and pudgy body, Creighton is not exactly the sort to inspire confidence, but he describes to Ed a revolutionary new process called "dry cleaning." All Creighton needs is a silent partner to put up $10,000 to get the business started.

With no money but a cheating wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), Ed figures the way to get the money is to blackmail her lover, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini, "The Sopranos").

In one of his many reflective scenes, Ed tells us how Doris, an alcoholic, suggested to Ed that they get married after dating for only three weeks. Ed's story of the proposal is typical of the script's wonderfully dry sense of humor. "Don't you want to get to know me better?" he asked her. "Why?" she asked in reply, "Does it get better?"

Needless to say, there are a few complications along the way which lead to a trial. Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) is the high priced lawyer hired by the defense. An attorney with a big ego -- "I litigate. I don't capitulate." -- he is a firm believer in such esoteric defense strategies as employing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if he can't ever seem to get the name right.

A couple of small subplots add a little variety. One concerns a promising high school pianist, Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), whom Ed wants to help. Another concerns Ed's interest in the growth and styling of hair. Both add delicate spice to the plot without ever spoiling it.

A very quiet movie with little ambient sound, with occasional staccato piano pieces and with the aforementioned stunning cinematography, it allows one to concentrate on the picture's best aspect, Billy Bob Thornton's pensive yet subtly nuanced facial expressions, which alone are worth the price of admission.

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE runs 1:55. It is rated R for a scene of violence and would be acceptable for teenagers.

My son Jeffrey, age 12, found that this wasn't his cup of tea, giving it just 1/2 of a star. He said that his favorite part was when it was over. He found the lead character uninteresting and the movie boring. His only positive comment was that some of the comedy was "okay."

Copyright 2001 Steve Rhodes

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