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The Man Who Wasn't There
Joel and Ethan Coen's newest film, "The Man Who Wasn't There," finds the brothers returning to one of their favorite cinematic recipes: combine three parts film noir with one part each of absurd humor and film-history references, add a dash of gratuitous erudition, mix thoroughly, and splash on celluloid. To ensure that our jaded palates are tickled, this new film adds the diverse tastes of Billy Bob Thornton, black-and-white cinematography, and Ludwig van Beethoven's piano music to the mix.
But the ingredients don't blend well. The absurd humor lightens the bitter tang of the film noir too much for us to take either seriously. The film-history references and gratuitous erudition both introduce unnecessary aftertastes. And the whole swirling mass of flavors overwhelms and undermines the true characters swimming somewhere in the murky confusion. "The Man Who Wasn't There" might look like a tasty concoction on paper, but onscreen it's close to unpalatable.
While the Coens' last film, "O Brother Where Art Thou?", paid creative tribute to Preston Sturges and Homer the blind poet, this one gives props to James M. Cain and the aforementioned deaf keyboard-basher. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a "schlub" (Ethan's word) whose existence plays itself out in a generic 1940's California small town. He has a bitter wife named Doris (Frances McDormand) and cuts hair in a barbershop owned by his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). In the main, Ed faces life stoically, because it gives him nothing to be excited about; however, he feels something like a pang when he contemplates his wife's affair with local retailing magnate Big Dave (James Gandolfini).
So when a shady entrepreneur shows up in town needing ten thousand dollars to invest in a sure-fire venture known as "dry cleaning," Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave to get the cash. As one might expect, nothing happens as Crane intends it, and soon dark secrets and murkier schemes lead straight to brutal murder. Crane tries hard to worm his way out of the increasinly oppressive dilemmas he faces, but nothing he tries works.
Much the same could be said for the film. This failure is certainly not due to technical faults. Thornton commands attention with his impassive, gnarled face and plain, gravelly speech, delivering his best performance since "Sling Blade. McDormand as Doris makes her sarcasm and annoyance intriguing, and the rest of the performers hit their marks with enthusiasm and skill. The black-and-white compositions, which come courtesy of director of photography Roger Deakins, are sumptuous and often arresting, and the Coens have always known how to pace a narrative and get the atmosphere they want.
But the film as a whole leaves a sour taste in your mouth. We are obviously being asked to take Crane and his troubles seriously, but at certain points in the story the Coens mock his credulity. A scene in which Crane begins to believe Big Dave's widow and her tale of malevolent flying saucers does nothing except make Crane look like a jackass and provide an opportunity for the Coens and Deakins to introduce a visual motif. The discussion of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, like the rest of the references to higher learning, feels pallid and pointless and acts as an additional reason to scorn Crane, who can't understand it.
If we're supposed to identify to some degree with Crane's motives and downfall, why do the Coens keep treating him like someone more worthy of derision than sympathy? The cruelty of the mockery is compounded when one considers the indignities Crane suffers in the plot itself.
In the end, the Coens' failure in this film is made most obvious by a man who died in 1827. The slow movement of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata (no. 8 in C minor, Op. 13), which eventually becomes a motif in this film, is vulnerable, passionate and truly noble. The Coens seem reluctant to evoke any of these feelings in this film, preferring instead to undermine them with silly or ironic asides. When Crane becomes increasingly interested in the music, and the Coens mock his interest, the gap between these two conceptions of the human soul - one as a sincere striver for something higher, one as an idiot subject to forces beyond its understanding - becomes even more painful to consider.
Thus, "The Man Who Wasn't There" ends up feeling less like a story than an artifice, and a cruel one at that. It's like seeing the smartest kid in the neighborhood pull the wings off flies just to watch them thrash about helplessly. This may prove appealing to some - it certainly appealed to the jury at Cannes, where this film shared the award for "Best Director" - but those who believe that mixing human drama and smartass commentary is in bad taste won't be there.
DO NOT MESS WITH LUDWIG
Look, Joel and Ethan Coen. You can mock your characters all you want, and that just makes me not enjoy your film. But if you ever use Beethoven again in this manner, I will come to your houses and kick your fraternal cinemaphilic asses. Beethoven has been the staff of my musical life ever since I discovered his works, and seeing him used to help out your dumb little story about a man you think is stupid makes me upset. There is nothing overreaching about Crane's growing enthusiasm for Beethoven's music; he is searching for something to believe in, something to appreciate in a life which is disintegrating around and inside him, something to remind him that there is hope for humanity if humanity continues to hope.
Your suggestions that his enthusiasm is that of a bumbling amateur who can never truly know anything about the music he hears are not appreciated. Even someone with no musical training can enjoy Beethoven if he or she is looking to hear what Beethoven is trying to express, which, if I may remind you, is almost diametrically opposite of what you are trying to express in your film. If you had used Opp. 106 or 111 (the two Beethoven sonatas which have been most important to me) in this film, I would be in Hollywood right now kicking your asses. But for now, consider your asses warned. The Lindemann does not play. Word life.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.