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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "The Man Who Wasn't There"


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The Man Who Wasn't There, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is hallmarked for its exquisite attention to detail as a 1940s film-noire. Shot stunningly in black and white, and complete with the camera angles and minute caricatures that give the film its nostalgic qualities, it's fun to watch. Yet, like the classic noirs, the film presents more of the style, atmosphere and quirkiness of the genre than plot, so don't expect to be entertained with stirring character developments, subplots or a climactic ending. In short, it's not On the Waterfront, despite its fantastic appearance.
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The film features Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber from the sleepy (at the time) town of Santa Rosa, California. "I never considered myself a barber," he says in a low, dull voice reminiscent of the classic film-noire genre, as he pulls another smoke from his pack of filterless cigarettes. He smokes more than he talks, except as narrator, and doesn't seem to care about much, either. He's the "second barber", with no ambitions to be in the first chair. His wife, Doris (Frances McDormand, Mrs. Joel Coen), has been having an affair with the manager of the local department store (James Gandolfini), but Ed's never felt motivated to do much about it. To him, he watches life go by, narrating his observations along the way. He is, after all, the man who wasn't there.

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Frances MacDormand as Doris
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Things change one day, when a stranger comes to town, Creighton Tolliver, played by Coen regular Jon Polito. He's an entrepreneur looking for an investor for his exciting new business: Dry cleaning. Ed sees this as a ticket out of his dreary life, so he schemes to raise the ten grand he needs to buy into the venture by blackmailing his wife's lover. This begins what turns out to be a series of dominoes falling, where everyone ends up being a bad guy, and they all get what's coming to them… eventually… The movie posits that Crime and Punishment are paired together by the curious law of nature which says, "what goes around, comes around," and not because of the law, or anyone else. That's just life.

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James Gandolfini as
Big Dave Brewster
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Tony Shalhoub as Lawyer
Freddy Riedenschneider
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The movie isn't focused on the "crime and punishment" theme as Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors does. Accordingly, it's not nearly as deep. Instead, The Man Who Wasn't There is, as a movie, more concerned with atmosphere, style and static character profiles. In fact, few characters are developed, and none go through any transformation at all. But, again, that's the style of the genre, and the Coen's remain faithful. Also missing are the humorous over-the-top personalities that earned the brothers their fame for movies like Fargo and The Big Lebowsky. So, when you add in the slow pace and somewhat predictable turn of events, one could quickly dismiss the entire movie as boring. I admit, I even found myself looking at my watch a lot. But this isn't the kind of film where you're supposed to look for modern film techniques.

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The movie doesn't focus on the "crime and punishment" theme as Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors does. Accordingly, it's not as deep. Instead, The Man Who Wasn't There is more concerned with keeping faith with the film's genre. Few characters are developed, and none go through any transformation that we've come to expect from Coen Brothers films of today. Also missing are the humorous over-the-top personalities that have earned the duo their fame from movies like Fargo and The Big Lebowsky. So, when you add in the slow pace and somewhat predictable turn of events, one could quickly dismiss this new film as boring. I admit, I even found myself looking at my watch a lot.

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Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver
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What the film does have are more sophisticated aspects that should not be overlooked. Yes, Thornton's character, Ed, is dry and two-dimensional, but he plays that role so well. Supporting characters and humorous notes here and there always keep us entertained. At no time did I feel the movie tried to be something it's not, so I forgive many of the features I felt it needed, and found the parts to be greater than the whole. Yet, it's the "whole" that left me disappointed in the end, yearning for the more complex plot and personalities that the Coen's are known for and more capable of than most filmmakers today, a level to which they've helped define today's movie standards. In summary, I felt the movie was well made…but, not necessarily well done.

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