About halfway through the Coen brother's new film "The Man Who Wasn't There", barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) gazes in wonder at one of the customers, gawking about how "the hair keeps growing it's a part of us- and we just cut it off." When his co-barber and brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) asks what is he talking about, Ed just replies, "I dunno. Skip it." Phew. For a second there, I thought the Coen brothers were actually taking this tired speculation seriously.
The plot to "The Man Who Wasn't There" starts out simple enough. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, barber. Him and his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) never talk much, but he knows enough to suspect that she's having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Nerdlinger (James Gandolfini). When a hopeful entrepreneur enters town (he's got big plans for something he calls "dry cleaning"), all he needs is 10,000 bucks to get his business started. This gets Ed interested, so he creates a blackmailing scheme demanding the cash or the whole world will know about Doris and Big Dave. You know something's going to go sour in this mix.
Let me tell you now, this is not your typical Coen brothers movie. Sure, it's got some quirky characters, it's shot in glorious black and white, and the script is well composed ("She proposed we get married. I said, 'don't you want to get to know me more?' She said 'why, does it get better?'") But there is a crucial ingredient missing in all of this. In all of their films that I've seen, the Coen brothers always give it their all. There's always something definitely Coen in their films. Yet watching "The Man Who Wasn't There", I felt that they weren't completely behind it. It's like watching a film school student doing his/her final thesis project.
For a while, the noir aspects of the film are handled incredibly well. The performances are, as would be expected, terrific. Thornton gives another aptly controlled performance, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is interesting, seeing as his character doesn't let himself come into contact with most of the world. James Gandolfini gives a good performance as well, and does a good job with the limited palate he is given. And Frances McDormand-- what more can be said about her? She is one of the best actresses working today, and she just stole the show for me.
I've also always found that in every Coen brothers film, Joel and Ethan always had the last laugh, like they are chuckling at the audience as they pull the rug from under us. But one of the major problems in "The Man Who Wasn't There" is that it takes itself completely seriously (except for one strange episode with a spaceship, in which it has the good sense to inject a little humor into). This isn't a good thing, considering that the Coen brothers aren't exactly philosophers. During its second half, the film becomes lightheaded and fluffy, using cheesy metaphors that never work (like that darn hair one I talked about earlier). Ed Crane all of a sudden turns his head to the sky and tries to give his life some sort of meaning. That wouldn't be so bad, but this sort of stuff just can't stem from a dark noir successfully.
I was very disappointed to see the second half of the film in such disarray. It just drags and drags; there's an entire subplot about a piano "prodigy" that could've been told in one minute of narration. When the film tries too hard to seem like a deep, thoughtful journey, all it really does is expose how shallow it is. Maybe I would appreciate this more if it didn't come from someone who seemed like they could really revolutionize the genre. I guess I would've expected the Coen brothers to go for something a little less... standard. "The Man Who Wasn't There" starts out as an unpredictable thriller, but in the end, it's hardly there at all.