- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is the sort of ironic-evocative title better calculated to boomerang on the authors than intrigue an audience. In this instance, it suits the tongue-in-cheek pretensions of writer-director Joel Coen and writer-producer Ethan Coen in formulating an elaborately insincere, derivative mystery plot about blackmail, murder and retribution, ostensibly set in a small town in Northern California in 1949.

The title seems to evoke an Alfred Hitchcock classic, "The Man Who Knew Too Much." The setting evokes a different Hitchcock film, "Shadow of a Doubt," which borrowed Santa Rosa, Calif., as a disarmingly idyllic location for menace in 1942.
Santa Rosa has served repeatedly as an idyllic backdrop. The nocturnal cruising scenes in "American Graffiti" were shot in Santa Rosa, for example. The Coens take the names of Santa Rosa and neighboring Petaluma in vain while simulating their appearance of half a century ago in various locations near Los Angeles.
The Hitchcock allusions also are superficial. Shot on color negative but printed in black and white to enhance a period facade, the movie begins as if it intends to be a pastiche of vintage James M. Cain, introducing Billy Bob Thornton as a taciturn barber named Ed Crane whose passivity provides cover for a blackmail plot aimed at his adulterous wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), and her lover-employer, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), proprietor of a department store.
The Coens have acknowledged the Cain homage; indeed, "Man" completes a trilogy of such gestures: "Miller's Crossing" obviously was derived from the school of Dashiell Hammett, and "The Big Lebowski" reflected delusions of Raymond Chandler.
The screenplay is full of playful and insinuating correspondences that don't have as much dramatic impact as they should. For example, Big Dave has married into his business. So has Ed, employed by his loquacious and oblivious brother-in-law, Frank Guzzi.
In this devious context, Frank's openhearted stupidity acquires an almost heroic dignity, and Michael Badalucco plays the role with a welcome naive gusto.
The Coens themselves are such smug and heartless smarties that a logical perverse reaction is to prefer clueless characters such as Frank, who embody quite the opposite set of weaknesses and appear genuinely vulnerable.
A man of few words in ordinary social and domestic surroundings, Ed as narrator blabs everything to us. Certain aspects of Mr. Thornton's "colorless" portrayal are diverting, notably a facial mask that suggests Humphrey Bogart in his more agonized portrayals and a toupee that suggests vintage Otto Kreuger, who played the suave villain in another Hitchcock thriller, "Saboteur."
The joke of Ed's more or less impromptu blackmail scheme, which leads to a murder rendezvous, is that it appears to be blundering in a foolproof direction, destined to lead all suspicion away from Ed when all suspicion actually should be pointed straight at him.
Ultimately, the filmmakers don't mind double-crossing everyone, inside and outside the plot. It wouldn't require a major structural reworking to transform "The Man Who Wasn't There" into a farce about small-town adultery and envy. The results might have been more satisfying.
Clearly, people get knocked off only when it amuses the Coens to see them knocked off. Both Mr. Gandolfini and Miss McDormand are sacrificed prematurely to plot twists. Tony Shalhoub, on the other hand, is overindulged lavishly as a celebrity defense attorney from San Francisco, an overcalculated source of amusement because he seems to pioneer a combination of existentialist and uncertainty-principle arguments for acquittal.
The Coens' nastiest trick is to deploy Scarlet Johansson as a disarming, highly improbable teen temptress while punishing Ed for his follies.
It would have been sufficient to have him eat his heart out for an unattainable dream girl.
The Coens are such self-satisfied humorists that they give Ed a line about the interminable nature of his chronicle. We aren't the first confidants, it transpires; an earlier one confessed that listening to Ed go on and on made his head hurt.
I'm not sure if this sort of precaution disarms criticism in the case of "The Man Who Wasn't There." It does go on and on. It does make your head hurt.

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