After seeing The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, I picked up a copy of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and chose a page at random. I wanted to confirm my impression that any single passage from the 1936 thriller has more lift than any minute of the brothers' homage to it.
I read the antihero's charged, ambiguous come-on to the daughter of his lover and partner-in-murder - a girl who's found out that her mom is making love with her own boyfriend. The older man says, "Let me be your doctor. I'll guarantee a cure. Just give me a little time and I'll promise to have it all right."
It's the sort of barbed conversational gambit we associate with noir films and movies, which offered '30s and '40s readers and moviegoers a zestfully cynical view of middle-class American life. Unfortunately, in The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coen Brothers reduce the earthiness and fatalism of noir to botched tragicomedy.
Homage this movie definitely is, down to naming one character Nirdlinger (the name of Cain's femme fatale) and another character Diedrichson (the name she has in Billy Wilder's famous movie version). But the Coens squeeze out the seamy excitement and street wisdom that drew fans to this form. The Man Who Wasn't There is an intellectualized, aestheticized, altogether hollow period piece. Despite its superb, claustrophobically controlled black-and-white look, it has all the impact of a cap pistol.
Set in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1949, it stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber married to a shrewish, self-hating Italian-American named Doris (Frances McDormand), whose brother Frank (Michael Badalucco) runs the family-owned shop where Ed cuts hair.
Doris has been having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the owner of a department store, when Ed meets a sad, dumpy little gay man (Jon Polito) who convinces him to invest in the service wave of the future: dry-cleaning. Ed writes an anonymous blackmail note to Big Dave to procure the cash - and unwittingly sets in motion two murders, a suicide and an execution.
Out of this wan premise director Joel and his co-writer Ethan Coen spin a puny story that at best is a postmodern joke on noir: They give us an asexual, passive-aggressive antihero who makes one small move and spends the rest of the movie contemplating how it shapes his life. He isn't particularly guilty, just mildly curious; he sounds bemused when he says, as things unravel, "It was like I was a ghost walking down the street."
Thornton is awesome at keeping the character believably austere, even when Ed takes on a teen-age girl as a protege (Scarlett Johansson, from Ghost World), and he resists her oral blandishments. But basically he does turn into a ghost. You keep wishing the noisy characters surrounding him would take over the movie. Big Dave bursts with appetite and Frank with chatterbox affability, and, as the film lies dying, Tony Shalhoub brings it a shot of energy as a hotshot lawyer.
Appetite, affability and energy are not part of the Coens' agenda. They're drawn to Cain as the bard of marginal men, and they give Ed the full Greek-tragic treatment, complete with a flying saucer as an absurdist deus ex machina (one that doesn't resolve anything or come to the rescue). The Man Who Wasn't There isn't serious enough to fulfill its ambitions, or funny enough to compensate for its failures. Even if you don't doze through it, you may forget it ever was there at all.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco and James Gandolfini
Directed by Joel Coen
Rated R (violence)
Released by USA Films
Running time 116 minutes
Sun score * 1/2