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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Man Who Wasn't There

The Coen Brothers strike again with another black (and white) comedy

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 14, 2001 -- The Coen Brothers, creators of "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" are at it again with another off-beat black comedy. "The Man Who Wasn't There," is a curious mix of tragedy and humor filmed in stark black and white.

Billy Bob Thornton of "Bandits" stars as Ed Crane, a taciturn barber who is deeply dissatisfied with his life. He suspects his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand of "Almost Famous"), is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini of "The Mexican"). When he comes upon a get-rich-quick dry cleaning scheme being peddled by Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito of "The Tailor of Panama"), he quickly decides to blackmail Big Dave in order to get the money he needs to invest in Tolliver's dry cleaning business scheme. It seems like a good plan because Big Dave would likely lose his job if his wife found out about the affair.

As Crane's luck would have it, Murphy's Law takes over and everything that can go wrong does. The blackmail note sets off a chain of murderous and tragic events. Crane's low-key quiet manner makes it seem as if all these awful events were destined to happen. He seems to watch all these terrible events unfold with complete equanimity. One would think that Crane is not affected by anything, but Thornton's subtle performance lets the audience know there are, after all, feelings inside this quiet man. Despite the film's grim plot, the very absurdity of what happens to Crane is the source of much of the film's black humor.

The film's absurdities include alien abduction scenarios, strange dream sequences, a hilarious attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub of "Spy Kids"), who is oblivious to the truth, but who is itching to use Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to establish reasonable doubt, a drunken attorney, Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins of "Snow Falling on Cedars"), Walter's precocious daughter, Birdie (Scarlett Johansson of "The Horse Whisperer and "Ghost World") and Crane's own pathetic attempts to escape people who talk all the time.

Crane is a man who slips under the radar. He is barely noticed, hence the name of the movie. It is hard to know what he is after, but maybe he ends up getting what he always wanted. He does end up being noticed, and he does get some quiet time to himself. The movie succeeds brilliantly in establishing memorable characters. It also succeeds in establishing a mood of existential absurdity, that is, to look at the absurdity of human behavior, tragic though it may be, and thereby expose the humor in it; this very achievement, however, also becomes a manipulative and somewhat pointless exercise. It is different, but no better or worse than a typical artificial happy "Hollywood" ending, or a tear-jerker. It is yet another collection of unlikely coincidences. The film is of the same vein, but not quite as good, as last year's funny black comedy, "Election." This film rates a B.

The appearance of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in the story raises an interesting philosophical question. Except for the occasional UFO, the thrust of the story seems to suggest the world is deterministic, a simplistic chain of cause and effect. However, in quantum physics, of which Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is one expression, subatomic particles can move forward and backward in time and can jump from one place to another without existing anywhere between the various indivisible quantum states. In the quantum world time and movement are not continuous as they seem to be in the so-called "real world." Thus, the visible world, which seems, at first blush, to be deterministic, is based on the quantum world, which appears to be a lot more random and non-deterministic. In fact, this could be one basis for chaos theory. The movie contains elements of both the deterministic and non-deterministic. It has the linear cause-and-effect story line, and quantum-like anachronistic dream states and UFO visions. Viewed this way, it could be that the seemingly oblivious Freddy Riedenschneider may have been the only person to see the truth, that is, that the cause and effect the police found in the strange case of Ed Crane was an illusion. The mere act of looking at something changes it. I wonder if that is true of film?

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)