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"THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE"
(2001) (Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A taciturn barber sets into a motion a series of disastrous events when he tries to jumpstart his dissatisfied life by blackmailing his wife's lover.
PLOT:
It's the summer of 1949 in a small Northern California town and Ed Crane (BILLY BOB THORNTON) is the local barber who works with his brother-in-law Frank (MICHAEL BADALUCCO). Rather introspective and quiet, Ed lets Frank chew the fat with the customers, seemingly content to smoke and watch the world go by.

Yet, beneath the calm demeanor, Ed isn't happy with his life. He suspects that his wife, Doris (FRANCES MCDORMAND), is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (JAMES GANDOLFINI), who's married to the heiress, Ann Nirdlinger (KATHERINE BOROWITZ), of the department store where they work.

Thus, when traveling businessman Creighton Tolliver (JON POLITO) arrives in the barber chair promising bright returns for investments in a newfangled process called dry cleaning, Ed gets an idea. By blackmailing Big Dave, he can not only get revenge on him, but also raise the money needed to invest in Creighton's plan.

Things go as planned until someone ends up dead and Ed learns that Doris is being charged. Seeking advice from his non-criminal lawyer friend Walter Abundas (RICHARD JENKINS), whose teenager daughter, Birdy (SCARLETT JOHANSSON), and her piano playing have caught his attention, Ed hires hotshot defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (TONY SHALHOUB) to defend his wife.

From that point on, Ed's world is turned upside down as he tries to do both what's right and what seems like will make him happy.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Whoever thought dry cleaning could be bad for you? After all, it's just a process where clothes are cleaned with chemicals rather than water. Sure, you could get a rash from some of them or accidentally ingest some and succumb from the toxicity. I suppose if one were an owner of such an establishment, they could also be offed by an irate customer upset that the coffee stains did not come out.

That said, it's doubtful one would expect planning to invest in the process back in the late 1940s would have such dire consequences, but that's exactly the case in the Coen Brothers' latest film, "The Man Who Wasn't There."

Starring Billy Bob Thornton as a taciturn barber who opens Pandora's box with his decision to invest money into such an operation, the film is what we've come to expect from the brotherly filmmaking duo of Joel (the director and co-screenwriter) and Ethan (the producer and other co-screenwriter). By that, I mean it's visually engrossing, contains a fun collection of eclectic characters, and is simultaneously maddening, satisfying and entertaining, much like their last work, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Yet, it's clearly not in the same league as their best effort to date, 1996's Oscar-winning "Fargo."

Shot in glorious black and white and featuring a slow-moving, chain smoking protagonist who speaks so much via voice over narration that after a while you'll swear he's a ventriloquist, the film is the brothers' obvious homage to the film noir style of filmmaking.

Anyone's who's seen the old gumshoe and murder mystery flicks of the 1940s will immediately recognize the effect they're going after, and from a visual standpoint, they've more than succeeded. Although originally shot on color stock and then duplicated in black and white, the film captures the look and feel of films from yesteryear, and oozes nothing but that palpable film noir aura.

Helping cement that feeling is the presence of and performance by Thornton as the laconic in person, but talkative in voice over protagonist. Looking unlike he's ever appeared in films such as "Bandits" or "Sling Blade," the actor makes the look and character work through sheer passive determination.

Although much of his performance stems from the deadpan, but hypnotic drawl of his constant voice over narration - that I usually don't like but accept here due to the style of the piece - Thornton bucks the odds and difficulties and makes the character work. It's an admirable feat considering that he barely moves his lips, let alone the rest of his body.

As in the Coen's other works, the supporting performances are superb, with Frances McDormand ("Wonder Boys," "Almost Famous") -- who's married in real life to Joel - creating another fascinating character out of her adulterous wife role. Michael Badalucco ("Summer of Sam," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") is also good as her brother and Ed's barbershop partner, while Tony Shalhoub ("Thirteen Ghosts," "Galaxy Quest") steals the show in his brief bits as a high dollar, high maintenance lawyer.

James Gandolfini ("The Castle," "The Mexican") is also good as Doris' boss, while Scarlett Johansson ("Ghost World," "The Horse Whisperer") delivers yet another captivating performance as Ed's young piano playing friend. That's despite the subplot featuring her and Ed's interest in her future musical career that goes nowhere and does little for the overall film.

Therein lies the crux of the film's most notable problem, and that's its storyline. Despite a plot description that sounds intriguing in a film noir fashion, and some terrific bits of dialogue for various characters, the pacing is occasionally quite slow and the story starts to unravel as it unfolds.

The basic concept of Ed's decision to blackmail his wife's boss-cum-lover with all of the ensuing complications and results is solid, but once the first murder - of which we're aware - takes place, this impressive looking ship runs aground and starts taking on water.

The ensuing murder trial quickly becomes somewhat surreal, while Ed's latching onto Birdy's piano playing potential and a bizarre UFO bit don't fit in with the rest of the film and near completely throw it off kilter. As a result, the film noir atmosphere is shot and the viewer is left pondering why the Coens wandered off at dinner and let the intoxicated grip finish their film.

Of course, that didn't really happen - it was the best boy at lunch - and the brotherly filmmaking team has been known to go down weird paths in their films. Yet, one is apt to feel that whatever the reason behind their decision to break away from what they had set up and were trying to do here probably wasn't the most prudent one.

Although it features some decent and even fun filmmaking and storytelling - such as when Ed returns to telling a story after a long and pivotal break as if nothing occurred - and a terrific performance by Thornton, the film simply loses focus and gets a bit too bizarre for its own good or the viewer's enjoyment. Brilliant at times, but frustrating or, worse yet, boring and/or confusing at others, "The Man Who Wasn't There" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed October 12, 2001 / Posted November 2, 2001


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