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Coen brothers cook up delicious film noir in 'Man Who Wasn't There'

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2001

It's extraordinary to find a movie character who is tremendously introspective and still not bright.

When Ed Crane says to himself, "How could I have been so stupid?," the first impulse is to laugh and the second is to think: Because you're the centerpiece of a deliciously, dryly pulpy film noir, dummy; it had to be so.

Ed (Billy Bob Thornton in a tidily cropped hairpiece) converses as little as possible as "The Man Who Wasn't There," but he narrates, deadpan, throughout. He's so taciturn he might be clinically depressed.

He processes each word, each development, each murder and accidental death so deliberately that it's almost not possible he could choose wrong. He constrains himself efficiently, but he seldom anticipates well. He's like a cautious chess player who can't see more than two moves ahead and whose miscues cause dominoes to cascade.

He's a natural for noir, which is what the Coen Brothers have constructed around him.

Abetted by the ambient black-and-white photography of Roger Deakins, the Coens - writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan - set their story in sleepy Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1949, when most Americans wore hats and dangled cigarettes from their lips.

Ed says he "stumbled into barbering through marriage." He likens barbering to bartending and soda-jerking. You talk to customers or you listen. He's a listener who cuts hair alongside his jabbering brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco).

When Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), a traveling salesman with a cheap toupee, stops in for a trim, he talks about the $10,000 he needs for a dry-cleaning business.

Ed doesn't have $10,000. Never would. But Big Dave (James Gandolfini) might. Dave married into a job, too - a better one. He runs a tony department store for his emotionally comatose heiress-wife, Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz).

Ed knows that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), the bookkeeper at Nirdlinger's, is having an affair with Dave. Ed could secretly blackmail Dave for the $10,000, right?

Besides, Dave's an embezzler, and Doris has been cooking the books. Let 'em squirm.

But then the murders begin, and someone is arrested.

Hello, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub).

Freddy is the hot-shottiest lawyer in northern California.

"I litigate, I don't capitulate," he says in a way that defines him. He's avaricious, condescending and dismissive - a dirigible kept afloat by self-important blather.

By the time he gets his wooden spoon in the pot, every vegetable, hunk of beef and potato head will be swirling in a new direction.

Exercising the restraint of the '40s in all but one scene, the Coens have fashioned a delicate souffle for lovers of noir, so deliberately paced that some will be put off. Others will savor the tempo as representative of Ed's thought process and the town he inhabits.

It's as though the Coens were saying: Fools rush in at their own peril. Better bide your time and look both ways.

The film unfolds like one of the Beethoven piano sonatas played by teen-ager Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), whose father is Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins) and whose teacher is Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle).

As they did in "Blood Simple," "Fargo" and other films, the Coens exhibit a superb ear for the cadence of everyday dialogue and for the way people size each other up. The talkers think they know it all. They don't know so much.

The Coens work with a stimulating self-assurance. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a stylistic exercise, to be sure, but one whose plot machinations thicken well enough to hold us with each ironic twist in the wind.

It hasn't the steam of such '40s noirs as "Double Indemnity" and the original "Postman Always Rings Twice," but it burrows under the skin and snuggles up to the pulse.

It's the first movie in months I immediately started looking forward to seeing again.

'The Man Who Wasn't There'


Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini
MPAA Rating: R, for a scene of violence
stars

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