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Overall Rating

Awesome: 35.37%
Worth A Look43.9%
Average: 9.76%
Pretty Bad: 9.76%
Total Crap: 1.22%

7 reviews, 40 user ratings

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Man Who Wasn't There, The (2001)
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by Erik Childress

"Death of a Salesman Without The Hard-Hitting Action"
2 stars

There are a few filmmakers working today who immediately garner respect and interest in whatever their latest project is. A handful of these writer and directors have even managed to maintain a flawless track record (at least by yours truly) receiving positive marks even when not ranking among their par excellence. Already one of these names on my list struck his first negative notch this past summer, when Tim Burton delivered the mediocre Planet of the Apes remake to theaters. That was bad enough, but now the second and third names are getting crossed off the illustrious list as well. Joel and Ethan Coen have been responsible for some of the most original and quirky cinematic creations in the last 15 years, but their latest plays like Death of a Salesman without all the hard-hitting action.

Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t play a salesman, nor is he named Willy. He is Ed Crane, a barber working for the family business he married into. He doesn’t like to talk (although he narrates the film) and seems generally dissatisfied with his life (although never mentioning it to anybody). He even believes that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), but just lets it slide. See a pattern here?

One day right before closing, Ed is talked an ear off by Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), who claims to be looking for a partner in the next big thing – dry cleaning. Presented with an opportunity to finally do something spontaneous in his life, Ed decides to get the initial investment by blackmailing Big Dave. When the situation spirals out of Ed’s control, he is thrust not into a nightmare, but more a perpetual state of sleepwalking.

Despite what anybody thinks about the Coens’ films with their dark, eccentric sense of humor or their metaphorical narrative structures, one thing that cannot be argued is how full of life their films are. Characters, situations and even their camera maintained an energy all their own. Barton Fink may not have been a springboard for charisma, but he was surrounded by a bevy of offbeat characters in a world of possibilities. The Man Who Wasn’t There doesn’t have any life, not an ounce of energy or charisma and certainly permeates not a single possibility.

There’s nothing going on with Ed Crane and how can an audience be expected to, at the very least, sympathize with his plight, when he doesn’t take any active interest in it or show a single emotion for anything happening to or around him? Moreover, the only character in the entire movie to show any kind of feeling whatsoever is Big Dave, but he exits the film before the 45-minute point. Gandolfini is so good in his few, brief scenes that we can only dream we were following him for two hours. And dreaming is something you’ll have plenty of time to do while watching The Man Who Wasn’t There. Even one character in the movie nods off to the sound of his own words.

Billy Bob Thornton does give an amazing performance that’s probably less noticeable since its so minimalist. But if his previous work in films like Sling Blade, A Simple Plan and even Bandits have cemented his name as one of the best actors working today, then here he puts his name and footprints in that cement. The great Tony Shalhoub supplies the rest of the interest in the story as a brash, hotshot lawyer who is Ed’s polar opposite, loving his job and loving his life. That energy and life I was referring to in other Coen films can be found in Shalhoub’s scenes.

The plot relies mainly on the noir novels of writers likes James M. Cain, but concentrates solely on the melodrama as opposed to the suspense involved in the increasing immoral acts committed by once upright citizens. It’s natural to have naïve protagonists in film noir, but how much compassion can we lend to someone who is way behind the audience when we first encounter the dry cleaning salesman? Even the dialogue, other than Shalhoub’s, doesn’t crack with the kind of snappy rhetoric we’ve come to admire in both pulp novels and Coen films. Everything is as flat as one of Ed’s haircuts.

The Man Who Wasn’t There flirts with a lot of maybes for discussion. Maybe the film is about one sad and lonely character looking too late in life for his place in the world. Maybe the film is a metaphor for the detached human emotion during the Cold War at a time when many were looking for that portrait of Norman Rockwell livelihood. I suppose if you have to guess with maybes, then the point of the film didn’t come across so clearly. If ever a director and actor got the audience to feel like their lead character, it’s Ed Crane, replacing Stephen Tobolowsky in “Sneakers” as “the world’s most boring human.” The one question that is continually asked about Crane is one that I would certainly like to know - “What kind of man are you?” The Coens are brilliant filmmakers and everyone is certainly allowed one miscue. I just wish I was the man who wasn’t there to see it.

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originally posted: 10/31/01 17:41:44
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User Comments

5/26/11 matt the evil man doesn't believe he's evil. ed crane is insane. he justifies everything to hims 5 stars
2/27/11 Platypussy Drifts and drifts and drifts 1 stars
6/01/10 User Name Style over substance, Coens or not. 3 stars
1/25/09 Tony A quiet storm of ironic humor and delicate drama shot beautifully in black & white. 5 stars
10/05/05 Jesse Taylor One of the Coens' best films so far. Very dark. The cinematography is amazing. 5 stars
9/25/05 D Buckley God, the Coen boys are starting to suck... 2 stars
3/18/05 indrid cold The radically overrated Coens do a great job, or at least the cinematographer does. 4 stars
5/11/04 J.Peckerfoot makes you wonder why more black n white films arent made.beautifully shot,great cast. 5 stars
5/05/04 A F It was good. I love Scarlett. 4 stars
4/05/04 Miss Julie I think I'm in love with Billy Bob Thornton too. I didn't think that was possible. Riveting 5 stars
7/29/03 NBCraftsman A precise study of "light, shadows, cigarettes (&) Beethoven", Coen style... 4 stars
5/17/03 George Jung Great film with amazing acting. There is nothing wrong with this film. 5 stars
9/15/02 Joe Zappa (I'm Back!) A little overrated, but it's pretty cool. 4 stars
7/15/02 The Motherfucking Hell Nazi Yeah, the UFO seemed irrelevant. Scarlet Johannson is a treasure. Give her more roles 5 stars
6/10/02 The Bomb 69 too slow to keep my attention fully, interesting twist at the end, whats up with the UFO? 4 stars
5/26/02 I'm in (L) with a Jedi this was a beautiful film, and i think im falling for billy bob as well 5 stars
5/20/02 Phil M. Aficianado 5 Stars, minus one for the UFO side trip. What was THAT about? Mesmerizing and unique; fun 4 stars
4/26/02 Jeff Lecky your so right dave it hurts... good movie! 4 stars
4/25/02 Dave MacDougall it's no "Blood Simple" but it's worth seeing... 4 stars
4/23/02 Monday Morning Great looking film. Too bad it got slower and slower as it went on. 4 stars
4/19/02 Jubei It's an excellent b/w trip back to the film noir era with amazing direction, acting etc. 4 stars
4/18/02 Spyguy2 Is it over yet? NEXT!.... 2 stars
4/03/02 Edfink Lombardo The best film of 2001...Brilliantly written, acted, and directed...Darkly funny 5 stars
3/17/02 Teresa The characters kept doing the most unexpected things. 4 stars
3/02/02 Unagiboy A gorgeous film, visually and script-wise. 5 stars
2/28/02 Chowie beautiful film, great storyline, bawled my eyes out at the end, billy bob was great 5 stars
1/21/02 Geire Kami flawless 5 stars
1/03/02 ^Elendil^ ... and it's very funny. 4 stars
12/28/01 matthew smith a film to admire 4 stars
12/27/01 Belinda Great! Cast to perfection. 4 stars
12/13/01 Dominik Duprelle It IS a classy film, lovely photography, but I found it v slow personally.............. 3 stars
12/10/01 Neil Austin The Coens are Princes' among paupers. If only they could pump out films as quickly as Woody 5 stars
12/07/01 Philip (Flip) Kromer The longer it's been the more sense the movie makes... A deep work that stays with you 5 stars
11/15/01 Big D. Rivals Memento for best film of the year, this is a beautiful hitchcockian/coen hybrid. 5 stars
11/11/01 Robert Was it 'kinda boring'? Yes, but that was the entire point... 4 stars
11/10/01 Brian I thought this was a great film. Not only was the story great but it was beautifully shot. 5 stars
11/09/01 Martin Brooks The film was excellent, it simply flowed along to the relaxing mood enhancing music. 5 stars
11/02/01 ishwar ramani The camera movements are awesome and the film is very good in bringing out the cynicism 4 stars
10/30/01 Lucy Swan Beautifully shot, wonderfully lit, moodily atmospheric. Blacker than black humour... 4 stars
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  31-Oct-2001 (R)



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