Wednesday, December 10, 2008

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001, USA) Ed Crane is a stranger to his wife, an invisible ghost who haunts his own house, a barber destined to an eternity of cutting hair, which always grows back…even after death. Ed sees his routine dreary future laid out before him: a loveless marriage, a mortgage, a mundane but steady job as second chair, and decides to take his destiny into his own hands. Knowing his wife is having an affair with her boss, he anonymously blackmails “Big Dave” into paying him ten thousand dollars. But things just don’t turn out right for Ed; he accepts his punishment with little remorse, taking full responsibility for his actions, and stoically receives his final judgment. Ed tries to make amends by helping his friends daughter (the beautiful Scarlett Johansson) to become a piano virtuoso, he wants to make something good happen in the world to balance the misery and death he has wrought, and his intentions are honest and true. The Coen brothers capture the 1950s in beautiful black and white cinematography, utilizing stark lighting and period detail that imbue the film with a classic noir façade. But the Coen brothers seem to have contempt for their characters, allowing their quirky style of inane dialogue and absurdity to taint the narrative. Every minor actor works too hard to be unique, every situation is just a bit to foolish, and the plot is just a bit too contrived. When Big Dave’s widow begins to speak of alien abductions and conspiracies, this awful tragedy begins to play like some poorly written abstraction, undermining the serious philosophical issues that could have been explored. Billy Bob Thornton remains impassive, his craggy face a landscape of existential alienation, and it’s his great performance that saves this from being THE FILM THAT WASN’T THERE. (B)

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