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Sam North reviews Joel and Ethan Coen's new 'Hitchock' thriller.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco and James Gandolfini.
Directed By: Joel Coen - Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen

One always runs the risk of alienating someone when you make a film about a nobody. One can either tap into the zietgist and everyone comes because they recognise something of themselves in that character or you miss that elemental thing that makes people love it, or him or her.

At some point during the film 'The Man who wasn't there', I suddenly realised that I didn't really care. This is not to reject the brilliance of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film. I love their films, nothing will probably be funnier or more stylish than their 'O Brother Where art thou? ' No one in world cinema with the exception of Jean-Pierre Jeunot is as inventive, or witty or has such a keen eye for composition. No one probably loves cinema as much as these two men and I respect them both enormously for that.. Nevertheless, even though all the elements are in place for 'The Man who wasn't there', it's style, an absolute sense of period and costume (1949) and it is filled with wonderful characters and some rare amusing moments, it is not moving. The real problem is the central character, Ed Crane the barber, played some studied relaxation by Billy Bob Thornton. The man who never speaks, never has much to say about anything.

This year 'Amelie' make a nobody with a sad life and little to say into a French national hero. Right across Europe and the UK people have flocked to see this film by Jeunot and although a minority hated it (because others loved it) it did speak to us and filled a need we never knew we had. It too was filled with complex characters and the heroine really didn't say much at all, but she was proactive. She 'knew' she had to change her life.

Ed, in the Coen's film really does have nothing to say, at a time in America's history when everyone does have something to say. Ed never got a change to prove himself in the war due to fallen arches, a huckster comes in for a haircut and temps him with the new concept of 'Dry Cleaning'. Could this be the future? Could this be his future? Luckily for him his wife is having an affair with the Nerdlinger department store boss played with verve and sensitivity by James Gandolfini. Even ciphers can figure out a way to make something and he becomes a blackmailer.

The snag is, Ed Crane isn't colourful, everyone around him is in colour, (alright this is a black and white movie - we are talking metaphors here). His boss at the barbers is his brother-in-law, who talks for the two of them. He also givesa funny performance on a pig.

When things go wrong Ed accidentally kills the boss who has found out about his blackmail scheme. "Beaten the crap out of the pansy to get it' as he says. The pansy took the blackmail money from Ed to fund his dry cleaning business.

It is typical of Ed's life that his wife should be charged with the murder, after all he's the man who wasn't there.

Ed lusts without passion or intent for the young daughter of a local lawyer, believing she has 'talent' but knowing nothing about music, this too will lead to disappointment. Billy Bob is amazingly restrained, Frances McDormand is excellent as always, everyone gives their best shot. You really cannot fault this film. The attention to period detail is admirable, the atmosphere is repressed and sterile, the mood slow and deliberate, a la Hitchcock and there are nice touches, such as mad Mrs Ann Nerdlinger (Katherine Borowitz) who is a shoe-in for Barbara Stanwyk, but at the heart of this movie Ed stands as an empty vessel. He is completely unfazed by the events that flow around him, much like Forest Gump. Simpletons get by but never really participate and in the end, neither do we.

As they say, never mind the quality, feel the width.

THE MAN WHO WASN"T THERE is playing at theatres all across the UK this November.

© Sam North 2001

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