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There’s always less than meets the eye in Joel and Ethan Coen’s elaborately art-directed period pieces, but The Man Who Wasn’t There is the siblings’ hollowest edifice since The Hudsucker Proxy. Rendered in lustrous black-and-white by regular Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is a triumph of retro style, from the opening credits’ shadowed typeface to the deft contrast of white and black in the final sequence. The cinematography, however, has more presence than the characters.
Man was reportedly inspired by Hudsucker’s haircuts, but its plot returns to the Coens’ longtime fountainhead, the hard-boiled novels of James M. Cain. Taciturn barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton)the man who’s barely theresuffers the daily company of his garrulous brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), who owns the shop where they work. Occasionally, Ed also must socialize with the equally verbose Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who runs Nirdlingers department store, where Ed’s icy wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), keeps the books. Ed is convinced that Big Dave is having an affair with Doris, but he doesn’t seem to begrudge this dallianceor at least he doesn’t resent it any more than he does any other aspect of his life. The barber lives in the pristine California suburbia of late-’40s Santa Rosa, but his disposition would better suit contemporaneous Paris. He’s a little bit Fred MacMurray, a little bit Jean-Paul Sartrewhich may explain why the movie won Joel Coen the Best Director prize (shared with fellow suburban-underworld bard David Lynch) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Coens’ innovation here is to tell a Cainlike tale of adulterous passion in which there is no passion. Phlegmatic Ed doesn’t intend to do anything about Doris and Big Dave’s infidelity, until the day foppish entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) stops in for a trim. Alone in the shop with Ed, Creighton is willing to reveal the technological breakthrough that will make some savvy investor rich: dry cleaning. All Ed needs to become Creighton’s silent partner is $10,000. Ed doesn’t have that kind of money, of course, but he figures that Big Dave would be willing to pay a significant sum to an anonymous blackmailer to keep his affair a secret from his wife. After all, Nirdlingers belongs to her, so a divorce would destroy his livelihood as well as his status in the community.
Ed’s silence is not a mark of sophistication; he’s just as big a rube as most of the Coens’ protagonists. (When Ed meets Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), the teenage pianist who will have a part in his downfall, she’s playing Beethoven. “Did you make that up?” he asks.) This scenario simply substitutes lethargy for the mania of farces such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski. Rather than rush flailing to his doom, Ed lets the events wash over him: Big Dave’s murder, Doris’ arrest, Creighton’s disappearance, and the arrival of arrogant, big-spending defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). Throughout it all, Thornton is formidably inert, every bit as impassive as Fargo’s William H. Macy was hysterical.
The film fetishizes such noir trademarks as deadpan narrationby Ed, who talks to the audience more than he does to Dorisand chain-smoking. Yet the filmmakers can’t resist some mood-breaking facetious touches, including references to UFOs, cannibalism, “pansies,” and “wops.” In their most austere picture, the Coens still show an adolescent taste for grotesquerie, which they’re pleased to present as Americana. Come to think of it, that may be why they keep winning prizes at Cannes.
If The Man Who Wasn’t There cares for little but the look, Vengo is concerned mostly with the sound. Franco-Algerian writer-director Tony Gatlif’s obsession is the music of his Roma (aka gypsy) ancestors. His best film, Latcho Drom, depicts this tradition as a historical cavalcade, with its only narrative the journey from the EastIndia, supposedly the Roma’s original hometo the West. On this itinerary, the West means Spain’s Andalusia, where Roma, Arabic, Sephardic, and other styles mingled to create flamenco music. Vengo is set there, in a land where the people whitewash the buildings and the sun bleaches everything else.
The film does have a distinctive appearancewidescreen vistas of open desert and blazing skyas well as a wisp of a story: Caco (noted flamenco dancer Antonio Canales, in a nondancing role) is the acting patriarch of a suavely scruffy clan involved in a blood feud with another family. Caco’s brother Mario is now in hiding, because he killed one of the Caravacas; in reprisal, the tribe has threatened the life of Mario’s retarded son Diego (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez). Looking out for Diego (which includes offering him the obligatory sexual initiation) and arranging frequent parties, Caco seems upbeat. Yet he’s haunted by the memory of his dead daughter Pepa and seems almost to crave a confrontation with the Caravacases.
In a film titled Vengo (“Vengeance”), some sort of violent clash is inevitable, but the plot of this retribution waltz would barely furnish a half-hour short. The tough-guy stuff is just an excuse for a series of exuberant musical set pieces illustrating gypsy, flamenco, Indian, and North African traditional musica wealth of worldly talent unlikely to be available in Paris or Madrid, let alone for Caco’s private events. (Gatlif even has some fun with his musical fixation, in a scene in which a group of coldhearted young bodyguards warmly discuss the record label they run on the side.) As in the director’s Gadjo Dilo, intense emotions are meant to complement voluptuous melodies, but this time the music is sharper than the knife.
Because it features a lone star and barely a single idea, The One is an unfortunately apt title for Hong Kong action figure Jet Li’s latest foray into Western movies. The high-energy but low-personality kung-fu master is introduced as Yulaw, an interdimensional badass who has traveled the “multiverse” snuffing his identical counterparts in other worlds. Apparently, when you kill your alter ego, that person’s energy is transferred to the remaining doppelgängers. Now Yulaw, who denotes his malevolence by curling his lip as if he’s starring in his cosmos’s version of Jailhouse Rock, has but one last duplicate to kill: Gabe (also Li), an L.A. cop who lives the centered life thanks to Buddhist meditation and his sweet veterinarian wife, T.K. (Carla Gugino).
The moviescripted by Glen Morgan and director James Wong, and retrofitted with Buddhist references when the Rock abandoned the lead rolebegins with a minitutorial on the multiverse, which offers such mind-boggling wonders as a world in which Al Gore won the last election. This foreword suggests a Pokémon movie, and what follows is about as profound as the second in that serieswhich was, oddly enough, titled The Power of One. Yulaw busts into L.A., followed by two interdimensional border cops (Delroy Lindo and Jason Statham). Only Gabe gets a good look at the supervillain, who combines martial-arts moves with Supermanly strength, so others assume that evil Yulaw is just Gabe in a bad mood. Loyal T.K., of course, believes her husband when he explains that his murderous look-alike is another guy altogether.
As in Kiss of the Dragon, in which he played a man who’d been framed, Li must go it alone here. Solo combat befits an actor who doesn’t speak English very well, and Wong and Morgan may even have indulged a little joke when they paired Li with Statham, the English hard manbest known for appearing in Guy Ritchie flickswho also has little use for dialogue. Unlike the best Hong Kong-rooted action movies, however, The One doesn’t compensate for its lack of sparkling dialogue with visual wit. When Li battles himself in an elaborate sequence that relies heavily on wires and slo-mo, the choreography (by Cory Yuen) is impressive without being thrilling. Like its rap-metal score, The One has plenty of power, but little finesse. CP