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.


Advertisements

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 49: Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest” (2005)


The Ice Harvest


The Players…

John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr and Randy Quaid.


The Story…

Clueless attorney Charlie Arglist embezzles $2 million from a mobster. Not a good life decision. Yet he keeps examining gift horses’ teeth. Nevertheless and with the swag in tow, sleazy Charlie plans to skip town with the girl of his misbegotten dreams. That is until the cops get nosey, as is their job.

Smart time to just follow advice from the Steve Miller Band.

Get it? I luv being funny and clever.


The Rant…

I work for the 2%.

It’s not something I’m proud of. In fact serving the gold-plated denies me everything I stand against. Self-righteous entitlement. Conspicuous consumption. Asparatame. But this guy’s gotta make a living, the one with the beater car and the beaten credit score. I have a wife and kid to support, and since they enjoy electricity so much I have to keep us financially solvent. That and beer and smokes aren’t free. Funny, neither is Netflix. So heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

That’s most of us. Most of us with bills for power, gas and medical care best pull down a 40-plus hour week lest we fall behind in car payments, credit card bills, mortgages and your bookie’s tab. We need to buy groceries, pay for education and doctors, gas for the car and the occasional indulgence, like a short vacation and/or your weight in dark chocolate for those late night cravings. These things require money, hence why we work. Sure beats being broke, living in the streets and scoring what few coins certain intimate services to strangers may provide.

Most of us just struggle along. A lot of us doubtless wish we get a bigger slice of the pie. Very few of us ever do. Wealth usually only comes to those who are lucky, crafty and/or inheriting daddy’s empire. And such riches are often pissed away like hair down the shower drain. Get me, I don’t take issue with wealth, though. It’s not like I’m some radical, left-winged Abbie Hoffman clone denouncing the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Okay, I’m not radical. Can’t ride a skateboard. But I’d be hard-pressed to deny that in these United States the rest of us would be pretty grateful for a large injection of cash to lighten the load and get that chocolate. We’d could cut a large check to a cause to benefit humanity, like find a cure for AIDS or alopecia. We’d love to own an island and maybe establish an endangered species rescue colony. We’d love to have a custom X-Wing.

Nah. Dreaming of that stuff is something we all do once in a while. I think about that X-Wing thing daily, though, all painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover.

I do take issue is how big money is misspent, if not outright abused. Banks too big to fail failing and crushing the housing market. Big Pharma taking careful measures to amp up prices for “research” and at the same time curing nothing so to maximize profits. The fatuous upper crust building actual gold-plated bunkers for when the inevitable happens and the rabble reenacts the French Revolution. Cake and everything.

Don’t even get me started on what Uncle Sam pisses away every minute.

But in the long run for most folks—2% or otherwise—too much money too fast makes you f*cking stupid. I’m not talking about tools who blew their lottery winnings on wine, women, song and an X-Wing painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Not day traders who sweat their own piss 25/8 into the next share onto share until they have an aneurism all in the name of some third-world start-up. Not even the upper echelon who think they are invulnerable to social mores and…wait, they are. Sh*t, that’s stupid.

What I’m saying is a lot of people reach for some pretty dumb ends to collect and lose money. I often believe it’s done with a half-baked, shortsighted and head-in-the-clouds kinda daydreaming about what a huge stack could offer. Sports cars you can’t afford the upkeep for. Same for a massive summer bungalow on the beach. Any number of flash accessories to live out your revenge fantasy on all the kids that kicked you out of the playground in grammar school. Sh*t like that. Where to get that quick fix of cash to fill that personal emptiness?

Nowhere. You can’t. Unless you inherit it or bet what little money you had right (e.g.: win the lottery or on Wall Street, whichever gamble you prefer), you’ll get the cash through long hours at your place of employ, scrimping and saving where you can, favors from your bank maybe (if you got one), but more likely relatives and patient friends and forgoing any luxuries like a new XBox One, ordering out for pizza and/or sleep. Big wealth doesn’t just come out of the ether. So much that in our so-called classless society, the majority of Americans will earn what their earning right now until retirement. If they get there.

Most of the time the big money stays right where it is, in a relatively tight global network that’s enthrall to the 2%. You’ve heard it before, and it’s not some outlandish Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theory either. It’s more like an open secret. Six empires control everything, and the profits en toto. Disney, Viacom, etc. Pulling the (purse) strings. The kind of blinding avarice the rest of us covet is always going to be out of reach. So for a reality check, keep punching the clock, wasting cash on hand on stupid scratch-offs and deny yourself that good night’s rest. Your dreams will still be there in the morning before the coffee’s ready.

After many years working for the upper 2% I learned something. Now I’m a bit of an armchair philosopher, meaning I call it like I see it. This is what I saw, and it’s based on personal and against experiences prior to catering to the Robin Leach crowd, BTW. Just roll with me a bit longer.

We all have addictions. Be it poker, Pokemon Go or substance abuse. I’m not sure about the second one, but the others have an option of rehab. You can fess up to your problem, seek out a support group and hopefully get your sh*t together. I have an addiction; I drink too much. I had a co-worker once who was a recovering junkie sharing a house with other recovering junkies. I’ve been to meetings and have sought council. Same with my old friends. There is a way out, once you owe up to the addiction and admit you need help. Society scorns addicts, also knowing full well what their cravings do may lead to either criminal acts and/or bodily harm. Theirs or others (others seem to take precedence). But there are outs, places to commune with other addicts, share stories, drum up mutual support. Hopefully this leads to recovery, or at least a semblance of one.

Here’s the hard truth. Groups only work so far. You actually need that social stigma—that guilt and remorse—to take action and clean up your sh*t. Loose the booze. Drop the needle. Fold. Otherwise it’ll lead to not just a loss of the plot or actual physical harm (yours or the bum you snow over for coins that may lead to another fix of crack), but the gentry looking down its collective nose at you. Scorn. It can be quite the potent motivator to find the straight and narrow.

However there is one addiction that has no cure, simply because it is both encouraged by society (if not revered) and even held in esteem. It’s the addiction to wealth. Enough is never enough. Such a junkie never views themselves as sick, despite having more directly demands having even more. Gone are the days of philanthropy. If a millionaire spreads his billfold wide, there’s usually some PR detachment  waiting with a phalanx of CNN and Fox News cameras at the ready. There’s really no such thing as altruism anymore.

Barring Warren Buffet, too many of the 2% need a detox. You don’t need a gold-plated bunker. You don’t need an island chain in the South Pacific to serve as a driveway for your platinum Maserati collection (which you never drive and never will). You moms don’t need titanium strollers for you 11-year olds. But no plebeian American turns a nose up at this. Amassing wealth is the ‘Murican dream. Smartly managing it? Keep sleeping, and enjoy your Big Mac for breakfast each and every morning.

There is no cure for wealth addiction. There is no end, no matter how many Powerball tickets you scratch. And f*ck all who get in the way of the dividends. Including the housing market.

*pant, pant*

To be fair, some enterprising people do profit wildly from outlandish schemes now and then while staying within the margins. Even a blind squirrel and so on. Some were no accidents. Some get-rich-quick strategies actually paid off without resorting to the Wall Street casino. Some stupid, but eventually fruitful (in no small part to the low-hanging fruit mentality of our blessed country. Quick n’ cheap) ideas that let the coins roll in if only for a short time. Pet rocks, Tamagotchis, Seward’s Folly, etc, at least those fortunes—however hair-brained the motives—had a plan in place, real or projected. Not just it’ll-come-to-ya finger crossing, but a drive. Careful designs in motion. There are the people who just wanna make a quick buck, skim off the top, con, swindle and scam. On the spot and with zero plan what to do once they get their mitts on some cash, if they ever do. Looking up to Rupert Murdoch or our present GOP talking head as if to aspire to be Jesus, Mohammed or John Lennon. It’s okay, no treatment needed there. Brass rings await.

The lower 98% thinks along these lines, I’ll bet. Not all, of course. I still have to work, sleep and keep studying frame by frame every scene of The Sting over and over again in order to locate my own pet rock. If we all had more, what should we really do with it? And how do we get to it? How do we keep it? Is a plan necessary? Do I have a problem? Why are low income folks eating out of McDonald’s Dumpsters to survive? Why should anyone feel compelled to build a gold-plated bunker when titanium is so much stronger, not to mention cheaper? Sh*t, why should any high profile mover and shaker feel compelled to build a bunker in the first place? That says something about who has too much and who has too little if you ask me.

So. Where do we 98% start? Where’s an ample supply of cash at to get our teeth fixed or our car to work or coffee in our mugs? Where can we find our ugly quick fix and “get ahead?”

Well, if you’ve been paying attention over the past few decades, outright theft’s been a pretty reliable tactic…


Charlie (Cusack) has a problem. A few actually. One, he’s broke. Two, he needs cash and quick. Three, he’s a mob lawyer. And four, he just embezzled over $2 million dollars from his best client Bill Gerard (Quaid). Bill’s not the most understanding person in the world, so when he finds out where his finances went, Charlie’s going to have to face his fifth problem: getting away with it, scott free.

He also hates being stuck in Kansas, but that’s another thing entirely.

Okay, so Charlie has the money. He and his fixer friend (and Bill’s illict porn distributor) Vic (Thornton) have concocted a wily scheme of  getting their swag and themselves the hell out of Dodge. Well, will finalize how to get away. Of course, there are always snags in pulling off a heist like this.

Like Charlie being a nervous nelly about getting caught. Like the thug who’s pursuing Charlie and Vic to less than gently shake them down. Like Charlie’s crush on stripper Renata (Neilsen), who has less than a heart of gold and a way of pouring honey in Charlie’s ear. Like having to babysit drunken buddy Pete (Platt), who just won’t shut up about Charlie’s shady career choice. And of course Bill inevitably tracking the the dopey pair down.

All on an Xmas Eve…


Don’t misunderstand. The Ice Harvest is a comedy. A dark comedy. Very dark. We’re talking charcoal here. This ain’t no How To Train Your Dragon here, bucko (shout-out to Lex).

Harvest‘s comedic tone isn’t something I’m used to in a Harold Ramis movie. The humor is so dry it practically chafes. I’m accustomed to Ramis’ movies to be a little madcap, be it nutty plots, snarky dialogue and over-the-top goofball characters. With Harvest, you’d never find the likes of Al Czervik, Carl Spackler or Clark Griswold with their loony comedy cachet. Nope. You would find…well, Charlie Anglist and Vic Cavenaugh, and all the silliness that entails.

Which isn’t much. Or at least being very different form Ramis’ previous efforts.

Harvest a very low-key affair compared to the late, great Ramis’ other movies. Very low-key. This film barely plays like a comedy at all. There are snappy lines, amusing characters and almost noir-ish story playing out. The movie’s source material was Scott Phllips novel of the same name. Never read the thing, but what I got out of Ramis’ adaptation is that Phillips must have a grim sense of humor.

Grim is one of the watchwords here. From the get-go you know this crime caper is bound to fail, it’s only a matter of when. That uncommon dry humor works well for this tale of the wages of sin. It doesn’t ever lighten the load, and that creepy vibe is only amplified for it. One of the major scenes in the film—and doubtless the funniest—is when Vic and Charlie get into a gunfight with Bill’s heavy locked in a trunk. It’s a demented scene, to be sure and rather funny. But these guys are going to kill the guy in the trunk lest he takes out Charlie and report back to his superior about the missing cash. That sounds like something out of a Tarantino flick. The Ice Harvest is a comedy, written by the guy who gave us Caddyshack and the original Ghostbusters. Despite the grim air, this film is meant to make you laugh. Sometimes you do, but mostly you just cringe.

The other key term attached to Harvest is demented. The whole story—set up in the opening with Cusack Coen-esque voice over—is so going to be a paper moon for Charlie. We’re let in on the little secret here and there by the nonsense that routinely pops up in our “hero’s” post heist. Pete’s drunken raging. Renata’s fake 1940’s bombshell schtick. Officer Tyler popping up at the most inopportune times. And of course it’s Christmas in Middle America, all honest and friendly. Nothing in Harvest is simple angst and evading the law/mobster. It’s all about the dry and often unhinged humor designed to discomfort. If Ramis was trying to make Coen Brother pastiche or simply try to stretch himself as director, he succeeded in fits and starts with Harvest.

A lot of what makes this grim, demented, black chucklefest work is (no surprise here) acting. We don’t have a traditional rogue’s gallery here, and Charlie the nebbish is hardly a steel-in-his-veins protagonist. No need nor want. Here we get a neurotic, white collar thief with a crush on a stripper with way too much easy money and not a safe to found. Dillinger he ain’t. I’ve always loved Cusack’s nervous, awkward energy. When either he gets antsy or really into a role, it’s all about scenery chewing without the chewing. A lot of mugging, albeit controlled. A lot of apologetic looks. Flat affect smiles. He seems to enjoy dropping things. He also is very funny when he is cranky. His Charlie has gotten himself  into such a bucket of syrup he can only surrender to the madness of it all and devolved into all Three Stooges. Not the physical aspect, mind you. Just the inevitable beat-downs, social and otherwise. His hangdog is a mile wide and we’re supposed to root for him. We can’t, and that’s fine.

Charlie’s ying to his yang is Vic. Mister smooth smoothie (so we’re led to believe). He knows all the chords, and will play them all the way to the Kansas border. Vic gives the air of cool, calm and collection. He has no doubt he and Charlie’s windfall will make it over the border. It’s all a ruse, though. Vic is just as fragile as Charlie, knowing Gerard’s flunkie is just around the corner to off them, even from within a trunk.

To give you an idea as to how detached a role like Vic’s could be portrayed, I submit Exhibit A: Sam Raimi’s 1998 crime caper gone awry A Simple Plan. Played opposite against a manic Bill Paxton (like there’s any other kind) as a stooge who ended up blowing the whole crime. Here Thornton is the polar opposite, never a jitter to be seen, but the endgame is the same. He knows more than he lets on, at least by what he thinks he knows. The end result is Thronton as a used car salesman selling hoopdies from an empty lot. Not quite sleazy, but cool enough to pull Charlie along into this mess. Both characters are the opposing sides of the same coin. It’s implied that this inside job wasn’t Charlie’s idea seeing how Vic is so clinical about the whole dangerous undertaking. And his fast-talking and angular logic and everything’s-gonna-be-alright delivery just rankles Charlie more, fraying his nerves. That’s funny stuff—a Fargo inspired Abbott and Costello bit—ignoring the heavy pall over Wichita Falls.

The final leg of this triangle is Nielsen’s sultry, conniving dancer Renata. Her femme fatale act is the culmination of a billion Rita Heyworth fanfics. That’s funny without being funny, and her schtick still falls along the lines of dark comedy. Such a caricature starring in a film post-1975 would be laughed off the screen and the screen then burn the screen. Beyond goading Charlie to waltz into her web of shear camies and legs, Neilsen’s best offer to Harvest in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge department is the anti-Elsa a la Casablanca. She’s the reverse, and if you think about it Harvest is a screwy take on Curtiz’ masterpiece. A dire getaway. The woman to leave behind. A lost fortune. Considering this scenario, author Phllips is a genius. How it panned out along Ramis’ storyboard, not so much.

If there is some theme to Harvest is that it’s about a lot less than purloined money. It’s pacing is helpful in unraveling this. Sluggish, like the Kansas winter that slows everything to a crawl. It’s about identity. It’s about trust. It’s about avarice and keeping enemies closer. It’s about army training, sir. The 2 mil is just the Maguffin. What surrounds it is an opportunity for a character study. That and a meditation on greed, lust, trust and what ends people will go to become so closed-fisted. The classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a better example of this with a lot more laughs.

So truth be told, Harvest ain’t all that funny. Icky, dire and left-of-center amusing, but I didn’t laugh outright once. Some snickers, sure, but for a black comedy, Ramis should’ve stuck with what he knew, not cross the streams (it would be bad) and inject just a shade more dementia to rub against the grim.

There was a listless feeling, foot-dragging that made Harvest one shade off brilliant, of which Ramis was. All the hallmarks were there for a Coen Bros/Bob Rafelson/Hal Ashby anti-comedy to be in place. It’s too bad too much Red Harvest keep sneakin’ around the perimeter.

Nice try Harold, wherever you may be. A solid effort, built upon thin ice.

*cue dead drop with a splash*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another one: relent it, but with reservations. It’s always a dodgy affair when a genre-established director take a left turn. The turn here was a sharp one, but the driver was halfway asleep. Damned f*cking black ice.


Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, I gotta go…”
  • Nielsen has one of the lousiest American accents I’ve ever been exposed to. Heard that clucking as far back as Law & Order: SVU.
  • “It’s God’s birthday!” Wait, what?
  • At last, an honest cinematic depiction of your typical, average American holiday dinner. Rockwell quality that.
  • Pay phones? In the 21st Century?
  • “It’s surprisingly spacious, Vic.”
  • I can’t believe the Kafka gun tenet was quite literally put to use here. Surprising.
  • “Only morons are nice on Xmas.”

Next Installment…

Most major wars are fought deep in the trenches. When battle literally comes down in LA, soldiers take to the Skyline. Even if that means battling crazed, cannibal aliens from out of our galaxy.

War is hell.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 30: Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)


19473897_BA_Okrucienstwo_1


The Players…

George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrman, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein and Cedric The Entertainer, with Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Jenkins.


The Story…

Love is fleeting as it’s been said. That’s why we have prenups. Serial golddigger Marilyn has a made a career of “marrying right” in order to divorce when the check clears. Finding Mr Right is a distant second to scoring Mr Right For Now.

When Marilyn solicits Miles Massey’s law firm for her latest chump to dump, he smells a rat and a scam. And an irresistible fiscal black widow Miles can only regard as “fascinating.”

And the case. Right, let’s not forget the case.


The Rant…

Short one this week. Kick back. Grab some Cheetos.

So. Do you remember your first Coen Brothers’ movie?

I do. They’re kinda like an event nowadays. Films made for a cult audience before the cult’s even made. I first experienced that hoo-hah back in college, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.

My first toe-dip into the Coen’s olympic-sized film pool was by way of Raising Arizona. Didn’t get it then. I was a kid. Liked Nic Cage because he was loony and hammy. Saw Arizona the same year Peggy Sue Got Married came out on video. Even though being a kid and totally removed from the film’s 50s pop culture references I liked that film enough. It was where I first met Cage really, and got reacquainted with that funny lady from Romancing The Stone, too, which was nice—mostly for Cage’s nasally delivery. The whole time travel thing was cool, too. Such simpler movie watching times then.

So me being a nascent Cage fan, hearing about the Arizona movie I checked it out. Like I said, didn’t get it. Too young. But Nic was clowning around and the whole goofy kidnapping caper tickled my fancy, enough so that I still remember the film aeons later. Must’ve left an impression.

The Coen’s movies sure do that. Leave an impression. It might not always be a good impression, but their signature sticks in your teeth like a Jolly Rancher, regardless of being either sweet or sour. Sure, other directors have their signature thumbprints all over their work (e.g.: Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc), and you look forward to their usual antics, but the Coen’s work is so oblique, so abstract, so f*cking weird we don’t get thumbprints. We get a five-fingered slap. And it can feel oh so good.

But for every Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing, we can also get The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Paris, Je T’Aime. I ain’t saying the latter films suck, but the Coen impression is skewed here, beyond the wacky scripts and bizarre acting. There’s inconsistency with the impression. Even some of Spielberg’s lesser films still smell like a steady Spielberg project. Coen films are a lot like comparing sex and pizza. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still good. But for both accounts, when it’s bad is isn’t necessary bad when it comes to Coen films. But it can be unsatisfying.

Akin to my Raising Arizona story, that Coen impression can be so palpable that when you watch one of their fluffier films you run the risk of walking away scratching your head. “What was up with that?” you may ask yourself after watching Inside Llewyn Davis two weeks after seeing No Country For Old Men. You dig? With the Coen brothers, it’s never really a good impression or a bad one. Across a continuum it can be a baffling impression. I understand all directors want to squeeze the orange every so carefully with each of their ensuing films, but the Coen’s work is so eclectic, and their quality is so all over the map it gets hard to adjust your lens.

Take this week’s installment…


She’s cunning. She’s deceptive. She’s gorgeous. And she’s loaded, which is separate from her other assets.

Marilyn Rexroth (Jones) is a serial golddigger. Professional golddigger is more apt, and she knows how to squeeze both a bank account and a scrotum with equal ease. The former is her weapon of choice. And her latest stupid, prey is on the chopping block, the cheating Rex Rexroth (Herrman). So to make sure she gets the biggest buck for her bang, Marilyn seeks out the best counsel against the law firm of Massey et al to secure the prenuptials.

Slick marriage attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) knows a ripe peach when he picks one. Marilyn’s beguiling…case proves to be a curious one. Miles suspects Marilyn isn’t the damaged, rueful ex-wife she appears to be. He scours about the law community trying to get some scuttlebutt on this woman’s true motives—which are painfully obvious.

But as Miles gets to understand his quarry, he finds himself slowly getting tangled in Marilyn’s web of…of…

How fascinating…


Like I began to babble about up top, my first real Coen movie exposure came in my senior year of college. Not one of their films, per se, just the reactions to one. The movie of the moment then, whose buzz could not be killed with an entire pallet of Raid was The Big Lebowski. My peers raved. They cheered. They took the White Russian-soaked philosophical mumblings of The Dude quite seriously. A cult was brewing. I was hesitant.

I’ve always been suspicious of the mass pop cultural appeal towards the movie/TV show/band/book/yoga position of the moment. For example, when the novel The DiVinci Code was the book on everyone’s quivering lips, I steered clear. Since the majority of Americans are functionally illiterate, when the hoi polloi starts salivating over a few pages, I arch a brow. I once got a “recommendation” for Dan Brown’s opus from a bar buddy of mine. Her claim, “Don’t worry. The chapters are short” was hardly a ringing endorsement. Back when Lebowski was the flavor of the week, and my esteemed colleagues would just not quit answering all questions with, “The Dude abides,” I slinked away and said later, gator. It took many years for me to get around to see the thing. Then and only then I figured out what my friends were slobbering over. It’s a great movie, granted. I guess I had already seen a lot of other films from the Coen Canon before my eventual few frames with Walt and Donny, so when the hammer came down I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course I was pleased. Because that crucial Coen impression was slathered all over the place.

Cruelty has the impression all right. It’s just not a good impression, and not in the sex/pizza paradigm, either.

Let’s get right to the point, Cruelty is a comedy in the vein of its Coen-helmed ancestor, Raising Arizona. Only it’s the opposite. Where the latter was an experiment in the bizarre, and totally left field compared to other comedies of its ilk back in 1987 (eg: Three Men And A Baby. Need I say more, Spock?), the former is a straightforward black comedy. Arizona was the anti-comedy. Cruelty is a winking screwball comedy. Almost, but lacks bite. A great part of the Coen’s impression is bite. Stinging, ribald, getting-under-the-skin bite. Cruelty has almost no bite. It gums. It’s goofy, to be sure as comedies like these are, but the movie flies by in such a gale that nothing gets a chance to take hold. Stick. Penetrate. Chafe. Ow.

Sorry.

Cruelty is a slick caper, this one. It’s not that there’s anything overtly off-putting here—acting’s good, story’s not dull, Jones is hot—but one gets the feeling that the Coens are deliberately holding back. You know, taking a few Ativan and seeing if they can bring wacky, campy sh*t to rise minus the late Randall “Tex” Cobb and his shenanigans. The end result here doesn’t feel very organic though, not the way like, say Fargo was. And that movie was a lot funnier than Cruelty is, albeit more stark. Then again Cruelty is a deliberate black comedy, trying very hard to be screwy, and maybe on purpose. I mean, it felt like the Coens were reaching for something here, something more mainstream in a comedy compared to their past efforts. But the whole thing just zooms by with nary a whit of subtly, like there’s some hurry to get to the resolution or the kitties will burn. It’s like staring into the microwave, watching that spinning cup of coffee boil over.

In simpler terms, slow it the f*ck down. Moving on.

Cruelty kinda reminds me of one of those daffy comedies starring Cary Grant back in the day. It’s would explain Clooney’s delivery, all snapping teeth, mile-wide smile and silver-tongued scene chewing. His Miles is a second cousin to Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—I know, I know. One more Coen movie citation and out the window with me—all fast talking and on the cusp of total ham. Whereas Ulysses tried to be an honorable husband and dad, Miles’ smarminess belies a petulant, pimply teen inside, always squirming with self-doubt. For all his wheeler-dealing, high-end divorce lawyer guise, what ultimately motivates him is getting girls to notice him. There are plenty of scenes when Miles is scampering about like spoiled, randy teenager, all bluff and bluster. It’s somewhat charming, but not necessarily endearing. Miles’ is ostensibly the protagonist; why’s he so reactionary?

Perhaps because Jones’ Marylin is so seductive, and not in the silk stocking kind of way. She’s a smooth operator, all right. Some master criminals scheme their schemes with maniacal glee. Well, so does Marilyn. Save the rare remorseful, crying jag she’s as scheming as they come. In a way, her nefarious lack of bluster makes her all the more Black Widow-type. Only instead of killing her prey, she kills their livelihood. It’s a kind of bullying really, and maybe a form of radical feminism. I don’t need a man for what he can give me; I want what he can give me. Jones is the villain here, and a delicious chimera if there ever was one. Best part of the film I figure. And kudos to the wardrobe department.

Despite the mostly seamless (get it?), winding, interconnecting plot threads in Cruelty, the whole thing comes across as way to busy and rushed. Feels like Coen comedy lite. Sure, it was amusing, and professional in its execution. And it did smack of a Coen Brothers madcap comedy, but everything was too measured. No real edge. No Hudsucker here. No tension. Slick like Miles courtroom babbling and everything streamlined because Marilyn has other fish to fry. Hurry, hurry, hurry. IfI get to timer watching—so to speak—there be a problem, laddie buck.

Welp, that’s about it as far as this installment goes. Other things of note (I don’t want to be derelict in my duties by ignoring other noteworthy sh*t. Yer welcome) that Cruelty sports the usual, eclectic, tasteful, awesome supporting cast of misfits and wastrels. We still have plenty of Andy Kaufman-esque “punk the audience” humor. There was a fair amount of head-scratching curiosity (one could say too much). The movie didn’t outright suck, but it was for lacking. Cruelty was a casserole of half-baked ideas and malformed notions, and maybe all a deliberate mess. Taken as a whole, Cruelty was sadly less than the some of its more impressive parts.

Y’know, now that I think about it, Cruely kinda played like a mashup of other Coen comedies. This specimen seemed fused together from ideas scattered on the cutting room floor. Was this part of any underlying comedy here? Like the Coens were trying to bait the audience by preying on blind fandom and Jones’ boobies?

And do they even have cutting rooms anymore?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Hey, not every Coen Brother film is worth quoting, y’dig? It’s like this is what happens when you find a stranger in th—Ow!


Stray Observations…

  • I think this is the first movie I’ve seen starring Jones with her not shedding the Brit accent. Maybe the lilt in her speech was meant to make her Marilyn all the more intriguing.
  • “We’ll eat the pastry!”
  • Was it just me, but didn’t Miles’ big speech at the convention kinda flow like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr Smith Goes To Washington? Like I claimed, classic comedy film undertones. Discuss.
  • “This man is tuna.” F*cking vile, that.
  • Living Without Intestines. Now that’s bathroom reading. And it has a pinup!
  • “Who needs a home when you have a colostomy bag?” Good point.
  • Talk about eating your words (*rimshot*).
  • “Punky’s Dilemma.” Clever.
  • “I nailed your ass!”

 


Next Installment…

The Physician of the Middle Ages understood that the only real obstacle on the way to becoming a healer was ignorance. And superstition. And the Catholic Church. And the Inquisition. And traveling afar to unknown lands. And eventually HMOs. And…