RIORI Vol 3, Installment 67: Joel Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)



The Players…

Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Polito, (eyes roll…) Scarlett Johannson, Richard Jenkins and James Gandofini.


The Story…

Ed’s an aimless barber who’s dissatisfied with his station in life in a his tiny NoCal town. The only excitement he’s felt in a long time is discovering his wife’s possible infidelity. This presents Ed with a unique opportunity; blackmail that he thinks will turn his life around. Read: a big, fat wad of hush money.

He thinks. Ed’s not so good at thinking outside the proverbial box. Especially when greedy thoughts taint his outlook…and lead to murder.

Ed shoulda stuck to cutting hair.


The Rant…

…Pant, pant. Okay. What’d I miss?

Sorry for the long break. Bet some of you other there figured I’d finally threw up my hands, in went the towel and gave up on scouring the Web for mediocre movies to strangle. Tempting, but I remembered I’m performing a public service. Wouldn’t be doing my civil duty with all those Affleck pics still slinking around out there. RIORI exists out of concern for all of you discerning movie monkeys. Out of love.

Right. Kisses. Now it’s time for Name That Movie Subgenre! And here’s your host…

Hi.

You’ve heard of film noir, right? Right? Aw, c’mon. You’re reading a movie blog. We’ve covered genres like sci-fi, action, drama, comedy, comedy-drama, dramatic comedy, comedies that weren’t funny, dramas that weren’t funny, etc. Don’t think I touched on any significant subgenres like film noir. For real, comedy-drama is a subgenre. So is horror porn come to think of it. In any event, all popular, well-worn genres have their little cliques. From crime drama we get film noir. Here’s an accelerated tutorial for the uniformed. The folks at Wikipedia define film noir as:

“…A cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.”

Stuff was like all the superhero flicks today: all the rave, and just as virulent. I think the Golden Age of film noir was back in the mid-1940s to the mid-50s. Wartime into peace. In a world of conflict, I’ll bet it appealed to the Homefront to tune into a dark underworld of corruption as a passive response to the open crimes beating Europe over the head with a rubber hose studded with roofing nails. Rough justice. Criminals getting their due, albeit in an ambiguous fashion. Femme fatales. Private dicks with a job to do unclouded by lofty concepts of justice and duty. The mean streets. The world of then was now a bit more blurry when it came to discerning what good and evil truly was. Shades of grey all around. Hence, noir.

Like that? Give you a chill? Anyway…

Appealing to the well-heeled to distract them from recent, all too real conflicts past overseas. Trade it all in for short, direct morality tales. With sex and shooting, too. Hail Columbia and pass the popcorn.

The genre kinda petered out, I think, with the dawn of Technicolor. That and the dawn of TV. Unsure on both fronts. The genre didn’t go away though, not fully. There’s always a need for on screen murkiness against what “good” and “bad” mean to each other. What I’m wagering here is that perhaps years of blurring the lines between good and evil on screen reached a saturation point post VJ-Day. After almost a decade of war, I’ll also bet Americans wanted to breathe a sigh of relief and lighten up some. Hence, Singin’ In The Rain.

Film noir never really went away, though. I mean, c’mon, watching Gene Kelly dance is a thing to behold. But so is looking down the barrel of some tough’s gun. A lot of what I’m about to say is conjecture since I wasn’t there when it went down, so I’m a-gonna offer a perspective akin to what went down. It’s all about reinvention, mixing the colors to appeal to contemporary audiences in need of a little deviance and a few anti-heroes to anti-root for.

I’ve always been a slow learner. I never had my head in the clouds; my lofty expectations were almost always grounded. Meaning I was well-versed in the present but always curious, studious in the past. Blame my Dad’s Dylan LPs. My point was—and maybe still is—that it takes me time to fully absorb the wealth of a certain something upon exposure. Sometimes it takes time for the right time to bloom fruitful.

Long story short, I discovered Never Mind The Bollocks in college. Again, slow learner.

The same adheres to the first sorta film noir flick I caught. Was made at the dawn of the 1960s. Sure, it wasn’t as hardcase as, say, Double Indemnity (more on that later. Don’t shiver), but still bore the hallmarks of the sub-genre. Sex, infidelity, steely villian and unwitting hero. Fit the mold. Hell, it even won best pic that year. Of course it’s a fave film of mine. Always in my top ten. And only hangs on the noir schtick in a febrile sense. No matter. Follow my pretzel logic.

Not all noir flicks are about the criminal element in otherwise polite society. Sometimes the most domestic, even plebeian circumstances—well-written—can be pretty sharp, cutting even exposing the evil that men can do without firing a gun. Sometimes all it takes are morally ambivalent characters acting on questionable impulses. Or thought out schemes.

The story goes as such. Our protag is a nebbish. Nice guy, but in need of a spine. Gets bullied a lot because, well, he figures that’s his lot in life. He’s a bachelor, and probably will be the rest of his days. No real friends to speak of, just said bullies who on good word can wrangle favors out of him. Sometimes for fast cash, sometimes just to be let alone. Our wimpy hero only has his job, some vague career aspirations, flirting with that cute elevator operator and his apartment.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, chances are you didn’t molest Fandango for Guardians Of The Galaxy, vol 2 tickets. If it does, color me impressed.

Turns out our wimpy leading man has a real thing for the elevator girl, and too shy and socially ill-equipped to have any gumption to ask her out. Flirting will have to do, especially since she’s the unofficial squeeze of our man’s smarmy, married boss. It’s thanks to that boss that our man’s sanctum sanctorum, his apartment, has become a garden of earthly delights. Namely, hey bud, you got no one and we guy folk need digs to swing, follow? You’re good people. Just let us use your apartment to shack up with some legs and you’ll be…well-compensated. Your boss said you’re golden. Dig?

CC Baxter nods his head. Too often. His “hospitality” catches on with his higher-ups, recommended by the big man himself Mr Sheldrake. Favors beget favors, but as Baxter’s star begins to climb based on infidelity, his morals get squished and his fantasy girl Fran gets further out of reach. With all that jazz coming from his apartment, she assumes CC is really just a player in lamb’s clothing.

Sounds pretty noir to me. You smell what I’m stinking, Quill?

The movie was The Apartment. A fave. Won best pic back in 1960, a time where noir was though dead. It had the same moral ambiguity, grim characters you couldn’t really tell which side they set on, black humor and sex on the sly. There were no shootings, no femme fatales (young Shirley McClaine was too much of a cutie pie), no dirty criminal activities (okay, maybe blackmail and some hints of embezzlement) and no fog clouded back alleys replete with a body in a dusky Dumpster. We had Jack Lemmon at his most cringey, the polar opposite of Some Like It Hot as our “hero.” We had Fred McMurray as the unlikely heel, especially so pressed against his future role in My Three Sons. We had Shirley McClaine well before her past lives, all pert and perky. We had all three take a downward spiral spin into moral corruption and sexual dalliances. Again, sounds pretty noir to me.

And the style never really went away. It’s still around. The neighborhoods might have changed, but the coal black underbelly of human frailty still slithers. From David Lynch taking us on a ride down Mulholland Drive to Miller and Rodriguez’ highly stylized Sin City to the starkness of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (already covered here, BTW), noir is still with us.

Heck, even the Coen brothers made their big screen debut with their cheerless, brilliant Blood Simple. Another tale of human frailty, illicit gains and a corrupt private dick after said illicit gains. All of the tawdry tale set against the background of quaint suburbia.

Kinda like this tale…


Ed Crane (Thornton) has a decent life. Nothing exciting, but maybe wanting for something more. He’s unsure.

Ed’s the local barber, a reliable fixture on Main Street. He’s good at his job, and even though it doesn’t pay much, he’s got not much to worry about there. His pretty wife Doris (McDormand) is well employed at the local, successful department store Nirdlinger’s as a bookkeeper. She knows all the ins and outs and comings and goings of all stock and what it costs. She also drinks too much and might be banging her esteemed boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (Gandolfini). Despite being rock solid and quiet, this irks Ed somewhat.

It’s funny how opportunity can rear its ugly head. One eve, close to closing time at Ed’s barber shop, some yappy traveling salesman hops in a demands a trim to better accommodate his toupee. As Ed snips, this guy Tolliver (Polito) goes on and on about his latest business venture. He calls it “dry cleaning,” getting those pesky stains out via special chemicals rather than soap and water. Way of the future, and all Tolliver needs is some mark to invest in his franchise. Clean, with chemicals.

Ed smokes a while. Sure, his life’s okay. But also he doesn’t feel that it’s really his life. Doris, after all, kinda holds all the cards, as well maybe Big Dave’s big dave. It’ll be nice to reach for a brass ring. Maybe just better to reach for…something. He meets Tolliver to lay down his part in the nascent business plan.

Ed’s not used to making a stand. He’s not used to making anything. All he knows is that it’s time for a change. A swerve in the road.

And fighting off a Lolita complex to classical piano a decade before Lolita is published…


Now I know using The Apartment as an example of late period noir was a bit of a stretch. Most installments here are. Still, there are decent parallels between one of Wilder’s greats and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Both films involve infidelity, blackmail and the sometime ugliness involved in “getting ahead.” I’m willing to wager the Coens’ took a nod to The Apartment as partial inspiration to Man. Then again, it might be my prejudice and an need to find some link. Why? I dunno. But I’m pretty certain that Man, despite its trappings, tries to examine the classic “good man who does bad things” as a means to an end. Kinda like The Apartment, except someone gets killed here, not just a ruined life. Well there’s that, too. I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Coen brothers got their start in neo-noir. Their debut, Blood Simple, had all the hallmarks of a classic noir film. Blackmail. Sex on the sly. A corrupt detective. People getting shot. Ambiguous, downbeat conclusion. All the goodies. So the bro’s knew their mark. Man is steeped even deeper in noir tropes, but it still has the same Coen ethos as Blood. In fact, Man has the Coen thumbprints all over it. Theirs is noir that cannot escape their trademark left-of-center humor. Man’s not funny much, but it’s still screwy in the Coen tradition. Namely, it’s weird.

There is less of an homage here than a winking nod. The matter with modern noir is the modern part. A great deal of what made the classics of the genre still resonate today (if only to us film geeks) is its lo-fi ethos. Imagery that’s too sharp and clean robs the style of its innate, intentional grittiness. Man is a noir throwback with a budget. Everything’s so clean and direct. Sure, we have tension, but minus the blurriness of the old school. Thornton’s Ed is too well-defined to be regarded as desperate, like our anti-heroes of the days gone by.

Still, it’s essential in a film like Man to have an average Joe thrown into—or in Ed’s case, invited into—unusual, opportunistic circumstances. Problem is with Ed he’s so darn nondescript there’s precious little to relate to. All we can glean from Ed’s life of quiet desperation in that he’s depression incarnate. We’re led to think Ed’s life sucks. Instead it looks like he’s just bored; even the screwy get-rich-quick scheme seems more like a lark than a way out of Ed’s humdrum life. You know, the one with the pretty (albeit lushy and wandering) wife and financial security. Ed’s motives for blackmail are vague at best, and derivative at worst. It’s like the Coen’s were forcing the noir aspect, not letting it be organic. This was the Coen brothers’ film I ever saw that was completely joyless, even with their trademark sly humor in check. Even Blood Simple had a sort of light touch. Not here. Man was grim. Not a lot of fun.

Still, this was the kind of film I just wanted to watch, sans commentary. There felt to be a lot to be absorbed here. Everything felt so deliberate. Wasn’t sure it was tribute or the usual Coen angular storytelling. Man was interesting to look at, but not to watch. Some shots work (like the confessional/ensuing struggle between Ed and Big Dave), some don’t (Doris’ pleas behind bars). Some seem genuine noir, some seem…too Coen. I know, I know. Established directors must have their own styles. It gets perilous, however, when said director tackles a particular genre that has well-defined parameters and spins it to their muse. What I’m driving at is that Joel’s trying to channel classic noir here, but he’s trying as well as practicing that screwy Coen storytelling logic. There’s some friggin’ in the riggin’ here, and it made my attention wander.

What did keep my attention was the acting, despite its stereotyping. We’ve already beaten up the concept that certain character ciphers are expected in a noir flick. The everyman put in a perilous sitch. The femme fatale. Greed and corruption. All lot of that in The Apartment. Here however, our leads are pretty hard-boiled, like a James Cain pulp (admittedly what the Coen’s claimed they were aiming for). Like I said, joyless. But our stereotypical characters paid tribute in the best way possible: they were familiar and welcome.

Thornton played low-key, almost stoic very well. If Ed is supposed to be the complete, unremarkable everyman plunked into a dark shadow, Billy Bob’s chain smoking protag fit the bill quite well. He’s so muted, so flat affect, the idea of being relatable goes out the window. We’re supposed to be sympathetic with Ed. It doesn’t work, since Ed has no personality. However I dug Ed’s narration. Resigned, like he was already in the Chair as he recounted how what happened happened. Low-key and guttural. All the best aspects of Thronton’s on screen persona, and far more engaging than him stalking about as Ed. Still, being in fine voice does not an engaging character make. We ride along with him as not just as avatar, but because he’s so blah we’re waiting to see if anything, anything stirs him outside of dry cleaning, unfaithfulness and having Tolliver make a pass at him. The rest of the time is an intriguing field trip with a man who has nothing to lose because he had nothing real to begin with. Guess that blah can be interesting after all, but it don’t curry any empathy with our lead.

The flipside of Thornton’s performance is the dynamic Tony Shaloub (who I wished had more scenes). Man proved to be a great platform to illustrate how versatile our often one-note Shaloub could be. One might’ve not even recognized him here as the fast-talking shyster lawyer Freddy. I didn’t at first. His spark came in at the right time in the film to mix the colors. I’d go as far to say that his brief screen time might’ve warranted an Oscar nod. Too bad those doddering, old white guys were drooling in their oatmeal. Yes, I liked Antonio that much, even without the clumsy guitar picking.

But overall, the film felt like Joel and Ethan were trying too hard. Man might be construed as fanboy wish fulfillment. They did a better job with Blood Simple; allusion rather than the straight line, which fell short of the mark here. I wanted to get into Man, but the film did its darndest to alienate me. Not unlike Ed being Ed. A shame.

Oh yeah. Remember a million miles ago when I mentioned I’d get into Double Indemnity? I lied. Go stream the thing for some noir goodness. Right now I gotta take these stained trousers to get dry cleaned.

Ain’t I clever? Kinda like straining spaghetti with a tennis racket.

Oh, go stream The Apartment already.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There’s a reason why certain Coen films land here at RIORI. They’re lacking something. Or have too much misplaced Coen in them. Chemicals.


Stray Observations…

  • “Like I said, I’m not an expert.”
  • Never light a cigar with a Zippo.
  • “That was really something.”
  • Talk about being high on the hog. Sorry.
  • “Just keeps growing…”
  • I did like the old school “scrolling background” during the car rides. A nice touch.
  • “I do the talking.” And how.
  • “Thank you, Burns. Now get lost.” Best line in the movie. Quite noir.
  • “Sooner or later we all need a haircut.”

Blogger’s Note (A Bonus)…

Hey. I’ve been at this blog for a few years now, tackling what mediocre movies the 21st Century has thrown at me. I’ve been considering branching out (mostly at the behest of passive-aggresive suggestions from the blogosphere) to consider questionable flicks shot prior to the year 2000. I was thinking about tossing off a random review of a random film with a dubious repute to stir the soup. Granted there are tons of such films lurking around the 20th Century, so I figured to set some parameter: mediocre movies within my lifetime. From 1976 (the Bicentennial. How American) to now. I’ll Quantum Leap backwards occasionally like some Dr Sam Beckett with an AllMovie profile and dig up some possible dirt. What say you all? Post some comments. I’m approaching serious here.


Next Installment…

 Nicole Kidman suspects there’s something off with The Stepford Wives, and it’s scaring her. Matthew Broderick suspects something similar, and he loves it.


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