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The Critic Who Wasn't There



*The Man Who Wasn't There (R)
USA Films

As I always say: "If you can't say something nice, then say something trashy." And I can't hold my tongue any longer -- Gazette film critic Warren Epstein is a daft sentimentalist whose vacuous reviews are probably ruining our chances of ever getting decent and timely movie releases in this cinema hovel. Let's brush aside the fact that he loved The Majestic and shrugged off The Lord of the Rings, and consider his latest review of the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There.

Warren Epstein: "As entertainment, [The Man Who Wasn't There] is maudlin and depressing -- a major letdown after the uplifting comedy epic O Brother Where Art Thou?... a story about a barber who simply can't appreciate the sensuality around him."

Whoa there. Time to back up and get out the old genre dictionary. Since when does the central character in a film noir "appreciate the sensuality around him" when it's anything other than a heaving cleavage or a shot of whiskey? And wouldn't it be a truly dull state of affairs if all a film ever did was "entertain" and "uplift" us? Go rent Orson Wells' A Touch of Evil and get back to us, please!

Like all of the Coen brothers' films, The Man Who Wasn't There is about a loser. And like all of their losers (H.I. McDonnough, Jeff Lebowski, Jerry Lundegaard, Barton Fink, etc.), barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a loser whose emptiness and desperation are about to lead him "out of the maze" and into a strange journey toward his own fate.

All of this is set in motion by the brilliant convolutions of character that we've come to expect from the Coen brothers. Ed, who's flat-footed, doesn't talk much and just "cuts the hair," is married to Doris (Frances McDormand). Doris, his bored and buxom wife, is climbing more than the ladder at "Nerdlinger's" department store, which is run by supposed war hero Big Dave (James Gandolfini).

Ed knows Doris and Big Dave are having an affair, and is largely indifferent until he "cuts the hair" beneath the toup of Creighton Toliver (Jon Polito), a sweaty entrepreneur looking for $10,000 in venture capital to start a chain of cleaners that use a revolutionary new laundering technique: dry cleaning. "Dry cleaning. Was I crazy to be thinking about it?" Ed muses flatly. The comic irony of a man driven by dry cleaning is patently Coen. What could be a more mundane motive and inciting incident? When Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave for the $10,000, the plot twists get thick quick, and it isn't long before murder, UFOs, a lawyer prepared to use the "Heisenberg" defense, and a sultry young Lolita sub-plot turn the empty lives of everyone into an ingenious epic story of small-town ennui.

Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography with all the right shadows in all the right places.

And through it all: They cut the hair.

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