Suggested alternate title, possibly for overseas distribution: “The Script That Wasn’t There”. One might think that the Coen brothers, having made films for over 15 years, including cinephile’s gems like “Fargo”, “Miller’s Crossing”, and The Big Lebowski, would have remembered to show up the first day of their most recent film’s shooting with a script. Evidently this didn’t happen, and the resulting hodgepodge is a medley of the brothers’ favorite verbal and visual tics, making much noise and signifying nothing.
The question arises, in my mind, at least: what film, exactly, were the Cannes Film Festival jury watching this year, when they awarded the Best Director prize to this film, in a tie with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? The common ground is in their desire to create an aura of pleasing confusion around their narratives, but where Mulholland Drive is intoxicating in its irrationality, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is just plain half-baked.
The film begins promisingly. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber in the small California town of Santa Rosa (not coincidentally, the setting of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”). Ed narrates his own story, beginning with his general dissatisfaction with Santa Rosa, and his lot in life. His wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is cheating on Ed with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini, superb as always). Ed realizes he wants success, American style, and figures out a way to make it happen. He blackmails Big Dave about his affair with his wife, in the hopes of investing in a new cleaning process called dry cleaning. Thornton’s encounters with the dry cleaning salesman, played by Jon Polito, are one of the few bright spots in this otherwise flat film. Needless to say, the blackmail does not proceed as efficiently as might be hoped, and before too much time passes, a number of people are dead. From there, the plot gets even stranger encompassing UFO conspiracies, a very funny turn from Tony Shalhoub as a criminal lawyer, and a subplot involving Crane’s involvement with a teenage pianist (Scarlett Johansson), reminiscent of “Shadow” and Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”. All these scenes feel completely tacked-on and unnecessary, as if the film had already ended, and these were merely the outtakes. While I am not one to tell filmmakers how to do their business, including how to cut their films, it is clear that this editorial flabbiness is symbolic of a larger crisis in the Coens’ career.
The film’s tone is highly uneven, veering wildly between playing the events for comedy, or highlighting the tragic quality of Crane’s predicament. In many ways, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is another stab at “Fargo”‘s pitch-perfect blend of hilarity and moral judgment, but the film never locates a moral center equivalent to “Fargo”‘s Marge Gunderson. As a result, the film reads as a tribute to classic films noir, primarily “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Double Indemnity”, without updating, expanding, or commenting on the noir tradition in any meaningful way. And while every aspect of the film’s technical production, from the acting to Roger Deakins’ cinematography, is uniformly excellent, the lack of a coherent script dooms the film from the start. One gets the feeling that the Coen brothers have lost some of their desire as filmmakers, and are treading water cinematically, choosing to pay homage to the past, both film’s and their own, rather than proceed forward. After a sparkling series of films, running from Blood Simple to The Big Lebowski, the Coens have fallen flat on their faces with their last two films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and this new effort. Considering the utterly moribund state of American independent filmmaking circa 2001, I can only hope that the Coen brothers’ descent into irrelevance is not irreversible.