A Cut Below

There are two kinds of Coen Brothers movies: violent dramas with some comic weirdness, and weird comedies with some violent drama. Miller's Crossing represents an extreme of the first group; The Big Lebowski, an extreme of the second. Fargo created a sort of extreme middle: a delightful balance of froth and weight, an uncomfortable place where violence and comedy hurts and entertains.

I love the giddy sharpness of the Coens' extremes. But when they're not sharp, they can be pretty dull. For all its lively music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? played as flat as poured molasses and just as syrupy--a weird comedy neither weird nor comic. And now, with The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens introduce us to O Brother's unfortunate sibling: the drama that wasn't.

A breed of noir, The Man Who Wasn't There includes some pleasurable moments, of course, as did its predecessor. Billy Bob Thornton provides another nuanced performance as Ed, a morose barber in small-town 1940s California; and Frances McDormand is at times searingly true, playing against type as Ed's girly, ambitious wife Doris. James Gandolfini fills Doris's boss and lover Big Dave with a gassy benevolence that is always one pinprick away from evaporating. As usual, the Coens nurture terrific performances. And, as usual, there are funny riffs, visual and verbal: haircut mockery, bit-part foolery, flying cars and saucers. Cinematographer Roger Deakins printed the color negative in black and white; the resulting soft-edged look fits Ed's fuzzy sense of self. Deakins also has more than one beautifully composed shot on display here. (I especially like the scene of Ed and Doris driving propulsively toward something they seem to be backing away from.)

But a great look doesn't make a great film, as Barton Fink proved. And actually, I prefer Barton Fink's incoherent wackiness to this schematic noir. At least the earlier film seems to flow in an organic fashion, with energy and will. The Man Who Wasn't There doesn't unfold: It marches. And it marches very slowly, so that the viewer is given time to value every over-determined minute. The scenes seem forced, as if everybody is working too hard to make something profound out of the smallest gesture. It's not just the paucity of action, although not much happens: Ed cuts hair; he lights cigarettes and smokes (a lot); he and Doris have Big Dave and his wife over for dinner, during which Doris laughs (a lot); Ed, attracted to a dry-cleaning scheme, decides to blackmail Big Dave to get some investment monies. There's your first hour. I don't mind a glacial pace, but the chilling self-importance of each moment killed me.

Ed's voiceover narration is partly to blame. For a supposedly quiet guy, he talks a ton. He may spend one scene simply lighting cigarettes and smoking; meanwhile, on the soundtrack, he's bending my ear explaining things that don't need explaining. He says he's looking for "some kind of peace," as he peacefully listens to a girl's piano playing. He says he feels like a ghost, as Deakins provides a lovely shot of Ed appearing static among passersby. Hey, Joel and Ethan: Ever hear of that visual medium called film? Where's the drama here? Given silent Ed's scorn for gabby triviality, perhaps the point is that he's just as consumed by empty talk as anyone. But one of the film's themes is Ed's desire to transcend the limits of language. The condescendingly summarizing voiceover doesn't track.

Its presence, though, is part of an overall tone of pompous meaningfulness. Like O Brother, this movie isn't content to tell a story: It must aim for the epic, and shore up small purposes with noise and arm-waving. So Tony Shalhoub's big-time lawyer spouts off forever about Schrödinger--whom he calls a "heinie"--and the theory that looking at an object changes it. Later the lawyer touts Ed as an exemplar of "the Modern Man," whatever that means. Alien-abduction stories rear up to become a strained, overarching metaphor. All of these are unnecessary. If the Coens had taken the time to deepen and complicate their iconic noir characters, they wouldn't feel the need to gloss every mood with a quirky, look-how-clever-we-are footnote. The movie is always trying to write its own exegesis rather than allow the viewers--and the characters!--to see as they will (and thereby change what's seen).

At one point, Ed wonders about hair's tendency to grow even after a person is dead. What keeps it going? When does it realize that its life is over? The Man Who Wasn't There reminds me of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, in which Johnny Depp played a character who perhaps hasn't realized that he's dead. Both movies chart a man's (and a country's?) dead end in the American West, where dreams of endlessly expanding prosperity and happiness are finally exposed as marketing slogans. The would-be pioneer finds himself trapped among petty brutalities and pleasures: still yearning to escape the humanity that dogs him (because it is him), still looking for something more. Can he find it only in violence? In death? Dead Man moves me. The Man Who Wasn't There informs me that I should be moved. The difference is that Jarmusch trusts acting and images to tell the story.

The alternative press hasn't been kind thus far to the Coens' movie, which screened at Cannes last spring and tied (with Mulholland Drive) for the director's prize there. Words like jejune, fatuous, and phony crop up even in glancing critiques. The Man Who Wasn't There is not that bad. But its arty self-aggrandizement is irritating, mostly because the film contains the germ of an honest and compelling story. Clear away the hyperbolic monologues and metaphors, the fetishized downfalls, and there is Big Dave asking Ed: What kind of man are you? And there's Thornton, as Ed, trying to figure it out: humbly cutting hair he will humbly cut again next week; loving a woman he can't understand (who may make more money than he does); drawing in and breathing out the same smoky air, like any other polluting factory. What are a man's purposes (small p) these days? What is a man when he's no longer a trailblazing hero? The Coens hold their crafty hands over their eyes: They can't bear to look.

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