I don't want to live!

Fatalistic film-noir fall guy recounts life of woe.

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE

directed by Joel Coen with Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, and James Gandolfini opens Nov. 2 at Neptune

JEALOUSY, ADULTERY, murder. How much more simple can a movie be? The Coen brothers have been there before, of course, with their auspicious '84 debut, Blood Simple, and The Man Who Wasn't There manages to both polish and enervate their first movie's hard, dark economy. Working with far greater technical sophistication, yet some of Blood's same cast (notably Fargo Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, playing essentially the same Blood role), Joel and Ethan Coen have finally, fruitlessly managed to repeat themselves to both greater and lesser effect.

Replacing Dan Hedaya as Blood's cuckolded party, we have laconic, almost inert barber Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), married to bookkeeper Doris (McDormand). In place of Blood's John Getz (where is he now?), we have James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as Doris' department-store employer, Big Dave, who, like Ed, owes his station to marriage, not merit. Events take place in 1949 Santa Rosa, Calif., unlike contemporary Texas, but the malevolent spirit remains. Ed decides he needs $10,000 to invest in a dry-cleaning scheme and blackmails Big Dave for that purpose. It's a sucker's game, pitched by a patent con artist (Joe Polito, a Coen vet like Michael Badalucco, who plays Ed's brother-in-law). So why does he bother?

As portrayed with fey exhaustion by Thornton, Ed is a guy so lazy that his very name requires only two letters to spell. "I never considered myself a barber," he says in past-tense voice-over. Oh, yeah? What else could he have been—save for his second-position barber's chair? The guy is delusional yet calculating. With no apparent ambitions or abilities to speak of (save for a mean widow's peak and a knack for photogenic cigarette smoking), he fancies himself a sensitive type fit to mentor a local teen piano prodigy (Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson). It's a joke, the Coens make clear; Ed wouldn't know Beethoven from his own behind. The important thing is that the girl represents "escape," improvement, a virginal vessel to rescue him from blood and bitterness.

"LIFE HAS DEALT me some bad cards, or maybe I haven't played them right," broods our hero, and that glum resignation permeates the entire film. Unlike the Coens' last crime-related flick, the ragged but amusing O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this picture is built out of a different set of Hollywood tropes. There's no joyous bluegrass music, no dapper George Clooney or comic John Turturro to enliven this exercise in genre deconstruction. Doom means doom, without a tune or beat to set your foot tapping.

In draining the color out of Blood Simple's murderous triangle of passion, however, the Coens have also drained the fun out of the black-and-white The Man Who. (It's certainly a stark, great- looking film, thanks to the Coens' longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins.) The deeper we get into Ed's head, the more we see how there's nothing to justify such scrutiny—hence the title, which stands as the Coens' slimmest stroke of irony to date. In a decent film noir, the narrator usually comes to understand everything during the rueful telling of his downfall. Not so here. Perhaps the Coens mean it to be funny that Ed's such an affectless schmuck, but the effect is more like pulling a prank on Rain Man's Raymond: How can we derive any satisfaction from being smarter than an idiot?

Dimwits have always made for entertaining Coen heroes, from Raising Arizona to The Hudsucker Proxy to The Big Lebowski. Here, however, Ed's sheer moral stupidity is a drag. Climactic courtroom scenes involving a shyster (Big Night's Tony Shalhoub) are meant to recall Double Indemnity but instead come off like Dumb and Dumber ("For he is modern man," the barrister intones of Ed). Doris' fate inspires pathos; Ed's only prompts relief. If he doesn't care where he's going, neither do we.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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