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THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their triumphant “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might be characterized as an existentialist take on the classic film noir of the 1940s. As perfectly crafted as all their films, and shot in a black-and-white that imparts a luminous glow to the images, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is, in many respects, a mirror-image of the earlier picture (indeed, the very title may be intended as a wry response to the question posed by that of the “O Brother”): it’s deliberate where “Brother” was antic and pensive instead of rambunctious; it’s set in an era of growing prosperity and promise rather than one of economic depression; and its central character is as solemn and quiet as Everett Ulysses McGill was voluble and energetic. (They both are obsessed, though, with hair–though in very different ways.) Most importantly, while “Brother” was ultimately about trust and family, “Man” is about infidelity and isolation–though it treats of those subjects from a darkly humorous stance.

The story is set in Santa Rosa, California (an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”) in 1949. The protagonist is Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton, looking remarkably like Raymond Massey), a gaunt, almost preternaturally still barber who stoically endures the dalliance of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the manager of a local department store, appropriately called Nirdlinger’s. Ed works for Doris’ brother Frank (Michael Badalucco)–he inherited the shop from his father–who’s as talkative as Ed is impassive. Ed’s world is changed when he meets a sweaty, toupee-wearing hustler named Tolliver (Jon Polito, looking ridiculously like Akim Tamiroff in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”) who’s seeking financing for his revolutionary dry-cleaning business. He decides to get funds to invest With Tolliver by blackmailing Big Dave. The scheme backfires, however; he secures the money, but Dave gets wise. Before long Doris is jailed, and Ed and Frank have to scramble to hire a top-notch defense attorney named Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) for her. As a sideline, Ed grows intensely interested in Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), whose amateur piano-playing he so admires that he wants to turn her into a professional. The youngster obviously represents a sort of muse calling Ed to something beyond his present existence, and over the course of the film he does reach a new level–though the convolutions of the plot make it a different one than he had hoped.

But the circuitous route that “The Man Who Wasn’t There” takes, while intriguing, isn’t nearly as important in the last analysis as the remarkable technique with which the brothers Coen conduct the journey. Every frame of the picture is thought out with a care that most filmmakers don’t exhibit through an entire feature (special note should be made of Polito’s final scene, which ironically recalls an extraordinary moment from Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter”), and quirks and oddities punctuate the narrative to startling effect, even though as a whole the film radiates a calmness that’s almost overwhelming. At the center of it all is Thornton, whose minimalist turn as Ed is a triumph that proves that less is often more; together with his flashier performance in “Bandits,” it insures that 2001 will be a memorable year in his career. The rest of the cast is solid across the board–certainly Gandolfini goes far to compensate for his misbegotten performance in “The Last Castle”–but all play second-fiddle to him. That’s particularly true of McDormand, who’s really given very little to do–rather surprising given that she’s writer-director Joel’s wife. The only serious disappointment is Shalhoub; he gamely tries to embody the lawyer’s extravagant self-absorption, but seems too small for the part’s oversized dimensions. Even still, Riedenschneider’s musings about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle get the chuckles they deserve.

The music to “The Man Who Wasn’t There” includes an original score by Carter Burwell and a few popular pieces from the period, but it’s mostly drawn from classical compositions, especially piano pieces by Beethoven. In Beethovenian terms, one could say that the picture is slighter than some of the Coens’ other work, less a full sonata perhaps than a bagatelle–one of the more languorous, gentler ones, of course. But a bagatelle this beautifully realized deserves to be heard, or, in this case, seen. Its jeweled brilliance and exquisite craftsmanship are treasurable. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a lovely, very funny and strangely moving film, one that takes its rightful place in the ever-more-amazing corpus of the brothers’ work.

SNATCH

Grade: D-

One of the obnoxious characters (or more properly, crude stick-figures) in Guy Ritchie’s appropriately sophomoric second feature–a vicious thug charmingly nicknamed Bullet Tooth Tony–remarks midway through the picture on the predictability of stupidity. The picture proves him only partially correct. “Snatch” is certainly stupid–as well as ugly and, more often than not, incomprehensible–but, like most bad heist movies, it’s not predictable in the sense that a viewer can always tell what’s going to happen next. Instead, in its self-conscious effort to seem clever, the movie is all narrative convolution and jagged technique, deliberately devised to make it difficult to follow. The writer-director’s apparent hope is that viewers will find the work of deciphering it pleasurable. But he doesn’t succeed in this ambition, because his picture ispredictable in the sense that after enduring its grossness, whiplash editing and ear-splitting soundtrack for a half-hour or so, one arrives at a morose certainty that whatever twists the story might take, the result is going to be a flashy but shrill and monotonous bore. A frantic but curiously tired recycling of Ritchie’s overpraised but sporadically amusing debut feature “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), “Snatch” is nothing more than an orgy of macho posturing and cheap film-school tricks masquerading as style, a supposedly comic dance of violence and gore that repulses rather than entertains. It’s the visual equivalent of somebody jabbing you in the ribs with his elbow every few seconds to point out how clever he’s being; you emerge from the experience feeling as battered and bruised as most of the figures you’ve been watching onscreen.

The central event in “Snatch” is the theft of a huge diamond by a quirky crook named Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), working on behalf of his New York-based boss Avi (Dennis Farina). Passing through London with the gem, he’s seduced by Russian mobster Boris The Blade (Rade Sherbedgia) to put down a bet on a boxing match, but Boris has actually hired inept pawnshop owners Vinny (Robbie Gee) and Sol (Lennie James) to waylay him and steal the stone. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and before long Avi has flown to England and engaged Bullet Tooth (Vinnie Jones) to track down Franky and the diamond. Meanwhile, small- time hustlers Turkish (Jason Stratham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) get into trouble with brutal local boss Brick Top (Alan Ford) when the boxer they’ve promised for one of his illegal bouts is incapacitated in a brawl with Irish gypsy layabout Mickey O’Neil (Brad Pitt), and to save their skins the boys persuade Mickey to take a dive in the rigged match–with equally dire results, since the guy proves both uncontrollable and invincible. Needless to say, the two plot lines get interlinked along the way, and there are scads of scams, double-crosses, bursts of violence, and arch confrontations before everything works itself out, with lots of broken glass and bloodied bodies littering the landscape before it’s all over.

If handled with some finesse and charm, this sort of roguish caper scenario can go down nicely, however implausible it might be. (“The Sting” remains an obvious example.) But “Snatch” boasts neither. The characters are all so loathsome that one couldn’t care less when they get whacked, usually as abruptly and gruesomely as possible (unfortunately, they have a tendency to come back like insistent vampires when you thought you were rid of them for good), and what passes for conversation is such patently phony gangsterese that eventually you cease to listen. Scenes of raunchy comedy alternate with sequences rank with nonchalant sadism. And the whole unsavory brew is pushed into our faces by a directorial style which mistakes empty pizzazz for cinematic invention.

The cast hardly distinguishes itself in such a slummy environment. Most attention will certainly be on Pitt, who has to be congratulated for taking a role in a comparatively modest project but not for the result. The erstwhile glamor boy puts on seedy airs here, but his performance is no less a failed stunt than was his undeservedly praised turn in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 “Twelve Monkeys.” He delivers all of his lines in an accent so deliberately thick and peculiar that it’s a running gag that nobody, apart from his closest mates, can understand him; but that’s a joke that wears thin fast. (Given the dismal dialogue overall, it might have helped if this affliction had been extended to the other characters too, but, alas, such is not the case.) More notably, Pitt spends so much of his screen time being viciously pummeled by opponents in the ring that, especially when one recalls that his last role–in “Fight Club”–required similar degradation, you can’t help but wonder whether the actor hasn’t developed a decidedly masochistic bent. Del Toro overdoes the accent, too, but since his is basically a cameo role, he’s not quite so annoying; Farina shrieks and froths so incessantly that the only surprising thing about his performance is that he didn’t burst a blood vessel completing it. Ritchie’s choice of local talent isn’t much more successful. Statham, Jones and Flemyng (all holdovers from “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) spit out their lines with the requisite bite, but they don’t show much charisma, while Ford snarls ineffectually as the bloodthirsty villain. None of the lesser players make much of an impression, but one curious fact should be noted: women prove entirely peripheral to the writer-director’s world. The only female characters on view here are Mickey’s long-suffering ma (Sorcha Cusack), a couple of leather-clad dolls (Nicki and Teena Collins), a doltish betting-window clerk, and assorted trophy dates. There’s also a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism throughout. If all this is really reflective of Ritchie’s mindset, his new wife Madonna had better begin mulling a quick annulment.

Viewers who were taken by the grim humor and overwrought visual fireworks of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” may be inclined to greet this second helping of much the same dish with enthusiasm, but I suspect that even most of them will find it overly familiar, a kind of desperate directorial rerun. Those who come to “Snatch” unaware of Ritchie’s earlier picture, perhaps attracted by Pitt’s presence, will probably be appalled. The latter’s the more appropriate response to a movie that’s really nothing more than an empty, pointless, and entirely too nasty exercise in farcical mayhem.