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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I don't know whether the Coens got their inspiration for this title from Hughes Mearns' ditty, "As I was going up the stair/ I met a man who wasn't there./ He wasn't there again today./ I wish, I wish he'd stay away," but their central figure, an anti-hero (read: schlub), is the sort who is regularly ignored and who is himself barely aware that he exists. The Coens' noir film is inspired in part from the detective novels of James Cain ("Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice") but crime is only a takeoff point for an examination of Big Themes like innocence, evil and hypocrisy. Situated in a small town in Northern California during the summer of 1949, "The Man Who Wasn't There" was photographed by Roger Deakins with color film, then transcribed to black-and-white as though the celluloid ran through a technological time machine. The result is a piece whose visual style glistens, with bold distinctions between the two colors rather than the sort of graying over which was common in films taken during the forties.

A long work of almost two hours--which could have used more of editors Roderick Jaynes and Tricia Cook's toil to speed up the languid pace--the Coen's latest effort looks like the work which they have called their favorite, Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt"--a pulp-story work about a young girl who realizes that her uncle is a murderer. Thematically, however, the picture brings to mind Kafka and Dostoevski even more than Cain and Hitchcock in its existential probing of the sad life of a middle-aged man who rarely talks (except when he is narrating his story to the theater audience), seldom changes his facial expression, and smokes so much that we can't be blamed for thinking that he'll die before he suffers from any state-imposed punishment for murder. This time the Coens save the surrealism for the concluding moments: don't expect the flamboyance of "Barton Fink," which goes off-the-wall bizarre, the playfully high spirits of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", or the big-city corporate ambiance of "The Hudsucker Proxy." What you do get, nonetheless, is a captivating examination of melancholia, duplicity, and an astounding performance by man-of-many-faces Billy Bob Thornton--his best achievement to date.

When the story opens, narrator Billy Bob Thornton in the eponymous role of Ed makes sure to let us know that he is not only "just" a barber but "only" the guy manning the second chair-- signalling us in the audience that he considers himself of no particular import in this life. He works for his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), getting the job because he is married to Doris (Frances McDormand). Were he born later, he would probably be one of those barbers who never learned to be a stylist--he just can't cut it, he knows it, and he is too Beckettian to do anything about his plight. Nonetheless he becomes fascinated with rug-wearing con man Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), who offers him a silent partnership in a dry cleaning business, as long as he can come up with $10,000 to finance a store. When he blackmails his best friend, successful retailer Big Dave (James Gandolfini), he gets caught up in a crime caper that spirals out of control, bringing to mind (to mine, at least), the expressionist theatrical work "Machinal"--about an anonymous clerk in a dismal office who murders his boss.

The movie won for Joel Coen the Best Director's award at Cannes, understandably so, as he elicits startling performances not only from the remarkable Billy Bob Thornton but from Coen- regular Tony Shalhoub in the role of hotshot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider. Shalhoub eats up the scenery as he points out what we all know--that the finding of a person's innocence or guilt depends in no small part on the quality of his defense. Riedenschneider, a larger-than-life guy who serves as a striking contrast to Ed, stays in the best hotels and orders the most exotic dishes he can find on the menu of a coffee shop in a Sacramento suburb of 1940s. He orders oysters (no such luck) while Ed can think of nothing more to ask for but coffee. Riedenschneider also serves as an contrast to the lethargic real estate attorney, Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), who virtually falls asleep to the sound of his own voice.

As a portrait of America during an allegedly more innocent time than our own, "The Man Who Wasn't There" succeeds in digging under the Norman Rockwell portraits to show the venality, chicanery, and cupidity of a typical Babbitt-like area of our country, entertaining us subtly, deliberately, and on an elevated plane.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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