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My thought on today

No. 29: “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Thoreau would have loved “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” You see, barber Ed Crane (portrayed with sly wit by Billy Bob Thornton) is living a life of desperation so quiet that it’s damn near mute. He suppresses every discontented feeling, sucking so intently on cigarettes we wonder if he half expects to find joy, not a smoldering butt, at the bottom. He doesn’t, of course, but neither do most of the people who waft in and out of his life. Nearly everyone — from Ed’s philandering, hard-drinking wife Doris (Frances McDormand, flawless as always) to her scheming boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) — in Ed’s world is just as trapped and miserable as he is. Scene for scene, this sedate stunner of a film plays out like a visual tribute to Thoreau’s most famous soundbite. The desperation, though quiet, is palpable.

However, lose not a moment to thinking such a tight-lipped antihero makes “The Man Who Wasn’t There” an unbearably grim affair. It’s just the opposite; that’s what makes this calculating black-and-white so engrossing. It provides a perfect backdrop for the pitch-black deadpan wit (a Coen brothers specialty) that manages to be disturbing, funny and philosophical all at once. And the cause for that despair (post-World War II fears of communism, the atomic bomb, Roswell, McCarthyism) translates seamlessly, almost eerily, to a post-9/11 society.

But back to the despair. It colors every part of Ed’s life. He chain-smokes it silent while cutting hair at his brother-in-law’s (Michael Badalucco) barber shop, but when he discovers his wife’s affair he sees an opportunity to jump-start his life. The plan? Blackmail her lover,  aptly named department store mogul Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for $10,000, then tap a middleman, the creepy, get-rich-quick drifter Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), to invest the funds in dry cleaning. It’s the wave of the future, Creighton brightly persists. “They don’t use water!”

Part of the fun of any Coen brothers movie is smashing, headlong, into unexpected plot twists, deaths and coincidences, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is chock-full of them. (Mum’s the word when it comes to more plot summary.) The beauty? The shocks don’t come fast and furious; that’s not how Joel and Ethan operate, at least not here (see “Burn After Reading” if you want a zany free-for-all). Slow and steady’s the pace of this film; there’s not one scene out of place, not one line of dialogue that doesn’t fit. When it comes to the technical aspects, like the gorgeous, awe-inspiring cinematography by Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is measured brilliance, an amazing send-up to classic film noir. The barber pole, with its stripes, stands out like a relief map against the bleakness, doing something Ed can’t: move. In any direction.

That high praise extends to the cast. The Coens know how to pick ’em, and there’s nary a weak link in this cadre. McDormand, a Coen staple, never missteps, and she makes Doris — who could have been an easy stereotype: the drunk, cheating, weeping, put-upon wife — a sympathetic character, one aware of her own shortcomings but unwilling to admit them, even when she’s caught. She’s proud and stubborn but self-aware, this one, and she might really, deep down, love her husband. Gandolfini’s Big Dave is a fearsome creature; he swings from sniveling to scary-as-hell in a way that makes it clear he earned his nickname. Tony Shaloub is comedy gold as pompous, pontificating attorney Freddy “I litigate; I don’t capitulate” Reidenschneider, and he’s the one who parrots what may be the film’s most telling line: “The more you look the less you know.”

Still, it doesn’t get much better than Billy Bob Thornton. This is the role he was born to play, and yet he doesn’t play Ed Crane; he is Ed Crane, from the chain smoking to laconic observations to the eternal disallusionment. No one else could play the part this good. Nobody. With his sad, shifty eyes and craggy face, he’s just what he says he is: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” It’s a fascinating yet controlled performance, and one that taps into that elemental fear: that we’ll sleepwalk through life only to wake up too late. Who, readers, has not felt the same?

Review: “Bad Santa” (2003)

Don't worry -- Mrs. Santa understands that !@#&@! happens when you party naked.

Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has a very reasonable explanation for why his Santa beard’s an obvious and cheap fake: “It was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy Thurman (Bret Kelly), the friendless wimp who’s latched onto him like a thirsty tick, Santa elaborates: “I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Apparently Mrs. Santa’s sister, though a tomcat in the sack, has a few … faults.

Shocking, isn’t it, to hear such frank, fresh talk in a holiday film? That all depends on your definition of “Christmas movie.” Terry Zwigoff’s warped “Bad Santa” is a Christmas movie only in the sense that it takes place in December. And there’s a guy wearing a Santa suit. And an elf and some reindeer. But all that noise about joy, peace, happiness, sugar plums and fruitcakes? That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” Sage advice indeed. Three sheets to the wind (a given) or stone sober (a rarity), Willie T. Soke is nothing if not philosophical.

“Bad Santa” brims to the top with such observations, shaped to twisted perfection by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and delivered just as expertly by Billy Bob Thornton and the ace team of comedic actors who play off him. Talk about a match made in heaven — if there exists another actor better suited to play the boozy Willie than Thornton, well, I can’t name him. Thornton, with his craggy face, downturned mouth and vacant but vaguely menacing stare, nails the mixture of desperation and disgust at the core of Willie. Part of that desperation stems from his job: An expert safe cracker, Soke has created a highly profitable scam with fellow con man Marcus (Tony Cox, a potty-mouthed delight). Soke and Marcus, posing as a Santa-and-elf duo, work a different department store every Christmas. In less than a month they case the store, find the safe and rob the place blind on Christmas Eve.

Everything works fine until their latest scam in Arizona, where Willie’s constant drinking — as well as his tendency to diddle women in the plus-size dressing room and show up to work falling-down drunk — raises the eyebrows of the store’s fussy manager Bob (John Ritter, bringing a nice comic flair to his last big-screen role). Store security chief Gin (Bernie Mac) hears of Marcus and Willie’s plan and demands a hefty cut. Then there’s the matter of Thurman Merman (Kelly), a lonely weirdo who plops into Willie’s lap and then proceeds to stalk him. Ever the opportunist, Willie sees a chance to rob the house the kid shares with his grandma (Cloris Leachman). “Is she spry?” he asks, pulling on a face mask. She’s anything but. Before long, though, the house becomes a crash pad for Willie, somewhere to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy nightly hot tub sex with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender for whom a Santa hat is akin to Spanish fly.

The further we follow Willie down into his vodka bottle, the more clear it becomes that Zwigoff has no intention — ha! none! — of softening all this misery’n with a cocoa-and-candy canes last act. Zwigoff isn’t really a happy ending kind of director (see: “Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World”), so he never lightens the mood of sheer, abject hopelessness. In a way, that’s almost admirable, his stubborn refusal to change course. He means to make a bitter, bad-tasting movie about a mean drunk and he does it. The good news is that Zwigoff also makes this movie singularly entertaining. The razor-edged dialogue proves as uproarious as it is profane (Marcus to Willie as Santa: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass”), while the actors — particularly Kelly, who’s all google-eyed creepiness, and Thornton, never better — turn in spot-on performances. These are people for whom “goodwill” is a dirty word. Considering all the holiday mush being peddled this time of year, that’s cheerfully refreshing.

Grade: A