Shot in black and white as an homage to film noir, The Man Who Wasn't There (no relation to the Steve Guttenberg movie of the same name) tells the tale of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton, sporting a veritable work of art on his head as a toupee), a mild mannered, chain-smoking barber in sleepy 1940s Santa Rosa, California. As Ed's life consists of cutting the same heads of hair day in and day out, he can be forgiven for a little dissatisfaction with his life.
So, when a stranger (Jon Polito) passes through looking for an investor in a nutty "dry cleaning" operation, Ed decides to blackmail his neighbor and local department store magnate Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for the seed capital -- because he also happens to think Dave is having an affair with Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand). This of course is only the beginning, as a body count starts to rise and nothing turns out to be as it seems.
Or actually, as everything turns out exactly as it seems. If it weren't for the usual populace of Coen brothers "wacky characters," The Man Who Wasn't There would be little more than Z-grade noir unfit for the bargain pulp rack at the drugstore. As it stands, it's merely Z-grade noir full of weird non-sequiturs like some utter nonsense about alien abductions and a bit with a would-be piano prodigy (Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson, utterly wasted here).
Shot with that typical Coen brothers flair in stark and shadowy black and white, the evocation of noir is impressive -- but in the end this is completely and utterly ruined beyond any hope by the fact that, at my screening, the boom was visible in almost every scene. While this is likely a problem due to the projectionists' framing, I won't discount sloppy filmmaking here. Other problems -- like foleyed sound effects not matching up to what happens on screen -- only point to more laziness in the film's production.
But the noir hopes for The Man Who Wasn't There are limited even with its pathetic technical work. Thornton's narration comes nonstop, initially a charming throwback to the real days of noir but inevitably overdoing it to the point where you never want to hear his voice again. The entire second act revolves around Doris's wrongful arrest and trial for murder, but the legal case is so absurd it's wholly impossible to believe. That's too bad, because the appearance of Tony Shalhoub as Doris's lawyer is one of the few highlights in the movie.
While it's pretty to look at and occasionally clever, the movie rambles incessantly and just ends up as unsatisfying on a number of different levels. I hate to say it, because I'm a fan of much of the Coen oeuvre, but The Man Who Wasn't There is barely there itself.
The plot that wasn't there (microphone not shown).
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th October 2001
Box Office USA: $7.4M
Distributed by: USA Films
Production compaines: The KL Line
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 125 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Joel Coen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, Frances McDormand as Doris Crane, Michael Badalucco as Frank, James Gandolfini as Big Dave Brewster, Scarlett Johansson as Birdy Abundas, Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver, Richard Jenkins as Walter Abundas, Tony Shalhoub as Freddy Riedenschneider, Gregg Binkley as The New Man