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Nov. 2 2001 11:15 AM

Noir de Vivre

The Coen Brothers do the 1940s—plus irony—in The Man Who Wasn't There; Richard Linklater plays with Tape; Monsters, Inc. doesn't know its own strength.

 

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In the sardonic film noir The Man Who Wasn't There (USA Films), Joel and Ethan Coen are in loving synch with their star, Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a depressively colorless '40s barber called Ed Crane. The universe that the Coens (and their cinematographer, Roger Deakins) have dreamed up for their protagonist is in black and white—but not the high-contrast, deep-focus black and white of most '40s noirs. The palette here is a gamut of grays, all of which seem to emanate from the actor's pallor. Thornton's skin is ashy-white, his visage creased yet eerily smooth, like a boiled wonton or the belly of a frog on a dissection table: It would be cool and clammy to the touch. Crane fingers his omnipresent cigarette and gazes on the world with lonely distaste. If he didn't narrate the movie—in the flat, darkly satiric tones of James M. Cain—you might not know precisely what he was thinking, but you would still sense his longing to squirm out of his own skin.

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It's hard to think of another thriller protagonist as passive and affectless as Ed Crane. Not Walter Neff of Cain's Double Indemnity, which the filmmakers repeatedly invoke. (The department store is called Nirdlinger's, and an insurance guy named Neff even makes an appearance.) Cain's Neff is a jaded company man, but he still has a filament of passion: The novelist was attracted to the satirical notion of urban losers re-enacting the scenarios of grand opera and getting ground up in the wheels of Fate. The Coens have repeatedly cited Cain as their inspiration, but they can't seem to keep from adding a postmodern wink and a derisive shrug. The movie plays like a satire of Cain's satires: Its hero is so impotent that his one (illegal) attempt to liberate himself from his oppressive life sets catastrophic forces in motion; and his consequent punishment doesn't remotely fit his crime. None of the primal emotions of the great film noirs can be discerned in The Man Who Wasn't There. There's too much ironic distance.

Having said all that, not every noir needs primal emotions, and the film is marvelous fun on its own terms—I laughed all the way through it. The procession of loony characters (and loony actors) is a treat, and Deakins' old-timey black-and-white compositions evoke the period and send it up, too. The Coens are peerless when it comes to riffing on found Americana or on conventional movie fodder like barber chairs, prison bars, and fat-cats' cigars; they even manage to weave in a UFO motif. You've seen these characters before but rarely with such sophomoric brio. I was much more comfortable with the jokes here than the ones in last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which the facetious tone and cretinous characters didn't gibe with the authentic feeling in the folk music. (The brothers should steer clear of authenticity.) The Coens have the hardboiled language of this genre down cold. Thornton's narration never takes the place of dialogue or imagery; it works in gorgeously funny counterpoint to make everyone look ridiculous.

When the Coens' instincts are working, you can almost imagine them cracking each other up as they construct their narrative—one logical step at a time leading to a riotously illogical outcome. This one gets underway when a traveling "venture capitalist" (Jon Polito) enthuses in the barber chair about a potential goldmine of the future—laundering clothes with chemicals instead of water, i.e., "dry cleaning." You can picture the fortune that awaits the excited Crane. And when he figures out where he can get the venture capital—by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the lover of his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand)—it seems both foolproof and poetically just. Several gory killings and a suicide later, it's hard to imagine how anything could ever have worked. The Coens' dark America is too littered with land mines, and they seem to have a much better time blowing their characters up than bringing them to life in the first place.

It's too bad McDormand doesn't have more to work with—her Doris is too circumspect, and the two-timing wife is an archetype that could use some rethinking. But Gandolfini is full of juice, his murderousness a glinting extension of his bonhomie. As a small-town probate lawyer, Richard Jenkins does one of the funniest drunk turns I've ever seen: His folksy sagacity and his inebriation get all mixed up; he puts himself to sleep. Halfway through, Tony Shalhoub shows up as a high-priced, self-intoxicated defense attorney and almost walks off with the film. It's a hot-dog character: He keeps up a running dialogue with himself, answering his own rhetorical questions, and his use of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as a courtroom defense ("Some Kraut came up with it … Fritz or Werner. … Even Einstein says the guy's onto something") is the reductio ad absurdum of the Simpson case and a lot of others. ("We can't know what really happened.")

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Above all, The Man Who Wasn't There is a pedestal to Thornton, who seems right at home in the Coens' faux universe. He's a very talented impersonator, but like many of his characters he has a tendency to keep nothing in reserve. The character of Ed Crane, whose best thoughts are saved for his narration, is a becoming straitjacket. Thornton is especially charming when he takes a deep breath and confesses to a crime he actually committed but is waved off on the grounds that he's too ordinary to be a criminal mastermind—and that his story makes people's heads hurt. The brainiest actors are at their most endearing playing mute incomprehension.

Tape (Lions Gate Films) is a project of the cleverly named InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) production company, which last year gave a hundred grand each to a handful of directors to make experimental features on digital video. This particular experiment works pretty well. The movie, directed by the soulful Richard Linklater, is based on a three-character, one-act play by Stephen Belber about two former high-school buddies: a druggie wastrel, Vince (Ethan Hawke), and a slickly pretentious indie filmmaker, Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), who meet up in a dingy motel room near a regional film festival. What Johnny doesn't realize is that he's going to be sandbagged by the slightly unhinged (and stoned) Vince, who's still simmering over a sexual encounter between his old pal and his high-school girlfriend, Amy (Uma Thurman). What happened on that night 10 years ago—and do these young adults (who have moved on, who think they're all different people now) have the capacity to own up to it?

You can tell that Belber went to graduate school in playwrighting (Juilliard) because his characters circle subtextually around a point for about 10 minutes before they finally get around to making it. There are also lots of power games—now one person has the upper hand, now another, now a third. And don't forget those buried secrets! But I shouldn't make too much fun of Belber, since he understands the most important thing about being a successful playwright: Give actors stuff they want to do. Hidden motivations, revelations, reversals, tricks—they're all here, along with lots of props and drunk scenes. No wonder Hawke was so hot to pass the script onto Linklater.

He's superb, by the way. You can taste his joy in doing all these actorish things—posing in the mirror, sucking down cans of beer, smoking joints, doing lines of coke. Leonard has the thankless role; he's brave enough to soak up the audience's resentment without distancing himself from this jerk. Thurman is lovely—down-to-earth and enigmatic at once. The performances are top-notch; it's too bad that none of the characters has much stature. Linklater compensates by getting inside the play, so that, as the emotions get heavier, the angles get distorted, and finally the camera whips back and forth from one person to another. Unfortunately, Linklater repeats the whipping back and forth thing until it loses its power; he runs out of angles, places to go. That's the downside of being trapped in one room with a bunch of actors.

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I missed the last 15 minutes of Monsters, Inc. (Walt Disney Pictures) because my 3-and-a-half year old became too scared to stay without doing something we'd both regret. But by that point I was getting pretty tired of the picture anyway: It seemed as if all that was left was an endless chase and a twist that I saw coming a mile away. It's fascinating for this lifelong movie-lover to relearn the language of cinema through the eyes of a small child and realize how powerful (and mostly ill-used) it is. These days, kids' pictures are excruciatingly loud and assaultive; the death of Bambi's mom seems by comparison almost serene.

Don't get the wrong idea. Monsters, Inc., the latest computer-animation epic from Pixar, doesn't have the warmth of the ToyStory pictures, but it still boasts a very entertaining slapstick-farce structure and some neat hairy, oozy, tendrilly creatures. John Goodman does the voice of the most lovable, Sully, a big, horned beastie with soft blue and purple fur; Billy Crystal plays his fast-talking buddy/manager, Mike, who's basically an eyeball with green feet. The monsters live in a different universe; they access the human world through doors, and they collect the screams of small children in canisters that power their cities. Some of the best shots are of the creatures flexing, cracking their knuckles, putting in their fangs, getting psyched to go forth and scare. The prospect is made harder by the fact that a) they're terrified themselves of human children; and b) those children no longer scare as easily as they used to. It's a grim irony that they no longer scare as easily because they've grown up being bombarded by the imagery in movies like Monsters, Inc.