The Man Who Wasn't There

Bomb Rating: 

I know plenty about existentialism and film noir, but this didn't make the Coen brothers' latest film, "The Man Who Wasn't There," any more tolerable.

I will offer a brief explanation of existentialism so those of you who paid no attention in philosophy class, watch a lot of daytime TV, or have ever given money to Jerry Falwell might have some hope of understanding what I'm about to say. In short, existentialism, as a way to understand who we are in the world, values existence over essence. In other words, you are what you do and your actions in the world define you. Thus, one is meant to understand from the Coen brothers' title that barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a man who barely exists in the world at all. He just cuts hair and he doesn't say much.

I suppose this title has a dual meaning as well because Ed kills Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini) after he discovers that Big Dave and Ed's wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), are having an affair. Unfortunately, the authorities arrest Doris for the murder, suggesting literally that Ed wasn't there. Ed is invisible in the world. To Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), Ed is just a guy who's going to give him money for an investment opportunity. Ed has no friends; his only one, Walter (Richard Jenkins), is on the verge of unconsciousness every time they talk. Ed is obsessed with Walter's daughter, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), because she plays the piano. But Birdy doesn't really see Ed either. Then there's Doris' lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). Ed admits he killed Big Dave and Freddy just ignores him as though he weren't even there.

The point to all this, I guess, is that if you spend the entirety of your life blending into the woodwork, being nothing, there's not much you can do to change that. The Coen brothers film this whole thing in black and white as a homage to film noir, that '50s genre in which lots of bad stuff happened to people. The reason film noir disappeared is that we invented color and realized anything in black and white sucked.

This film takes place in Santa Rosa -- or at the very least, one of the story's trials takes place in Santa Rosa. This was also the location of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite film, "Shadow of a Doubt" in which the seemingly normal Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) turns out to be a killer. One suspects this film is an homage to "Shadow of a Doubt" in some way, like "O' Brother Where Art Thou?" was an homage to "Sullivan's Travels" and Homer's "Odyssey", even though the Coens claimed they'd never heard of Homer (those scamps!). All I can say about this homage is that I never knew film noir could be so deadly dull.

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