The Coen brothers have brought some of the most original movies in the ’90s to the public eye. Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou apply an often dark sense of humor to offbeat scenarios and unpredictable plots. But with The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers’ homage to the classic black-and-white mystery, their humor rarely hits its mark and the plot never moves from its plodding course.
Visually, the movie puts the film noir classics it honors to shame with its sharp contrasts and interesting camera work. As the film’s stoic lead, Billy Bob Thornton provides a gravel-voiced narration that puts the audience squarely within the mind of his character, a silent barber watching the world pass by through the haze of his ever-present cigarette.
Things begin to go awry for Rick Barnes (Thornton) the moment he begins to take part in life. After hearing a customer’s plan to create a chain of dry cleaning stores, he decides to invest $10,000 in the business. No small-town barber circa 1949 could possibly have that type of money, except Big Dave (James Gandolfini), his wife’s boss and head of a local department store.
Barnes has the suspicion that his wife (Frances McDormand) and Dave have been doing more than accounting during some of their late hours. He writes Dave an anonymous blackmail note, warning him that if he doesn’t deliver $10,000, the blackmailer will inform Barnes of the infidelity. Dave gets the note and Barnes suspicions prove to be true – but after that nothing goes according to Barnes’ plan.
Unfortunately, the plot’s plan is entirely obvious. Things go from bad to worse, and apart from a bizarre inclusion of a UFO subplot, no turn comes as a surprise. The lack of an element of surprise may be an effect of the stone-faced protagonist, who hardly bats an eye at murder, deceit and UFO-conspiracy theories alike. His staid nature rubs off on the audience, which can hardly suppress a yawn as the film drags onward.
It is difficult to completely pass on the film because of its stunning. But once created there is nowhere to go. James Gandolfini (The Last Castle) and Frances McDormand (Wonder Boys) suggest a depth in their characters only expressed through muted movement and expression onscreen. Outstanding minor characters, played by Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World) and Jon Polito (The Big Lebowski), eventually become the only thing left to hold our interest in a movie that gives little in exchange for two long hours of our time.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is in theaters Friday.