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<I>MAN WHO WASN'T THERE</i> RICH, OLD-FASHIONED, YET WONDERFULLY CEREBRAL; <i>MONSTERS, INC.</i> FUN

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by Ben Kenigsberg I often wonder why they don't make movies like they used to, but every so often, some filmmaker tries to muster up the skill to make a picture that could ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

I often wonder why they don't make movies like they used to, but every so often, some filmmaker tries to muster up the skill to make a picture that could have been made in 1944, with updates in obscenity so it won't feel dated. (It's hard to have a sexy broad in a sex-free film these days. Just look at Woody Allen's last movie.)

The Coen brothers, the most exciting filmmakers working today, have tried their hand at it with


The Man Who Wasn't There


, a cross between

Double Indemnity

and Hitchcock's

The Wrong Man

that feels like authentic

film noir

in look, atmosphere, theme, and acting. It isn't perfect -- a bit of meandering in the second half kills a great deal of suspense -- but there's simply nothing else like it playing these days. I wish there were.

Let's start with the look. The Coens' cinematographer, Roger Deakins, shoots the movie in crystal-clear black and white, emphasizing every shadow. He makes brilliant expressive use of back lighting, shrouding characters in mystery (a perfect visual metaphor for what they're hiding). Cigarette smoke fills the screen in at least half the scenes. There's nothing like a little tobacco in a black-and-white movie to set the mood. The Coens' long-time production designer, Dennis Gassner, goes for broke, giving us seedy hotels, nifty cars, an old-fashioned barber shop, and western comic books. The movie is so vivid in atmosphere that even that oldest of sound tricks -- during a key scene, a clock subtly ticks away in the background, increasing suspense -- feels fresh.

While

The Man Who Wasn't There

is a triumph of style, it's primarily great because it nails the thematic richness of the

film noir

genre. Like Jules Dassin's

Night and the City

(1950), the movie tells the story of a ne'er-do-well who tries his hand at entrepreneurship -- only to sink deeper and deeper into a web of troubles. Irony abounds. As in the best

noir

, what happens is less important than how the main character reacts to what happens. The more damage the protagonist causes, the more we like him.

Ed Crane's reactions are priceless. At first, the movie suggests that the laconic Crane, played by the riveting Billy Bob Thornton, doesn't have much going on upstairs. But it turns out he's more of a calculating sonofabitch than we'd first imagined. One of the movie's many pleasures is watching Ed keep his composure at times when you think he's going to burst. There's something completely down-home about Ed -- he's Jefferson Smith trapped in

In Cold Blood

.

The Coens' dialogue, which combines the hard-boiled sensibilities of a film like

Detour

(1945) with the eccentricity that made the Coens'

Big Lebowski

so hilarious, beckons to be heard. For example: "Was he a huckster or an opportunity -- the real McCoy?" "You hired Freddy Riedenschneider -- it means you're not throwing in the towel. I litigate, I don't capitulate."

Style and substance aren't much without great performances, and

The Man Who Wasn't There

is the Coens' best-acted film since

Fargo

. The great Frances McDormand, as Ed's wife, suggests Lauren Bacall, 20 years after

The Big Sleep

, with a sad edge. Tony Shalhoub is on hand as a finicky, funny lawyer, and James Gandolfini is perfectly sleazy as McDormand's character's boss. But it's Thornton, with his wonderful, gravely voice and expressive eyebrows, who embodies the soul of the movie. His voice-over narration is as sonorous as a recitation by Garrison Keillor.

The Man Who Wasn't There

attempts to be a richer, more philosophical film than its classic predecessors. It succeeds, but at the expense of telling a traditional story. (The same problem plagued

The Wrong Man

, in which Henry Fonda discovered his self-worth while the audience suffered. It was no less profound for that, though.) The second half of

The Man Who Wasn't There

is never less than fascinating, although the film's emotional impact is blunted because of a cerebral ending, a la

Barton Fink

. But the ending is in keeping with the main mystery at the movie's core: what, exactly, is Ed thinking?

The Man Who Wasn't There

is an affront to the Hays Code politics of classic

noir

. Under the Production Code, the guilty had to be punished. But since Ed is only done in by his mistakes -- he mostly isn't consciously evil -- is it fair to punish him? The Coens won't say. The ambiguity only makes

The Man Who Wasn't There

more haunting.

The following is a checklist review of


Mosnters, Inc.


C'mon. You know you wish I'd write this way more often.

Was it as good as

Shrek

? Not quite, but the humor in

Monsters

is mostly geared for children, with a few pop-culture references for the adults. It's not an adult movie in disguise, as

Antz

is, but it's not inaccessible to adults, as

A Bug's Life

is. As kid humor goes, this stuff'll coerce an adult laugh here and there.

Was the animation good? Yes. Check out the fur on Sully (voice of John Goodman). Watch astonished at the climactic chase sequence. Then again, what did you expect?

Monsters, Inc.

has the same awe-inspiring attention to detail that makes Pixar's other movies so fun to watch. Ironically, the opening credits are done with perfectly good old-fashioned animation in a style strangely reminiscent of the

What's New, Pussycat?

titles.

Was Billy Crystal funny? Funnier than he was the last time he hosted the Oscars.

And the question you've all been waiting for: Was the new

Star Wars

trailer any good? No.