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 wrap-up.
"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 mindbogglingly weak.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman