1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen. Written by
I found this to be a pretty interesting film by the Coens'. I was well aware of the ability to do noir, as evidenced by 'Blood Simple', as well as many-layered, dialogue-driven narratives as in 'Miller's Crossing.' But what I found intriging about this movie was that it was about inconsequence. Billy Bob Thornton's character, Ed Crane, is similar to William H. Macy's in 'Fargo.' Both have unsatisfying positions in lowly lives. Both had received their jobs by "marrying" into them- Ed at the Barber Shop, and William's at the car dealership. The difference is, whereas the kidnapping plot is sought out in "Fargo", the blackmailing plot falls into Ed's lap by sheer choice (luck? fate?)
Ed's just a guy who wants to improve his lot in life- nothing too different then you or me. His wife's affair simply gives him the opportunity to do so. He didn't mind the infidelity, it is after all " a free country." But, of course, if she was faithful, there would be no noirish plot to pursue, correct? Quiet ambition drives Ed. After the dry-cleaning attempt goes sour, he sets his sights of Scarlett Johansenn's (who is quite remarkable) character's piano playing ability, in hopes of becoming her manager and "making enough to get by."
Thornton's "Ed Crane" really is the man who wasn't there. He sits- nearly brooding- quietly, observing life laconically. I actually found this movie quite sad. In the end, the only one who cares about his story is a men's magazine. And that's another big difference from 'Fargo" in which the pregnant Frances McDormand curls up with her husband, and you feel as if everything is just right in the world. That feeling is definitely lacking from "The Man Who Wasn't There."
Some viewers in the theater I saw it at said it was "the funniest movie they've seen all year." Sadly, I think they're missing it. Most of the humor is typical Coen's deadpan, but it is mostly generated from a tone of unease and tension. It's clever, but you waon't be slapping your knees like in "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lewboski."
Instead, you'll just be intrigued by the wonderful story that the Coens- who have become quite the master of their craft- have weaved in this beautifully textured, perfectly cast, and incredibly nuanced film.
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