The Man Who Wasn't There

(2001) *** 1/2 R
116 min. . Director: Joel Coen. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Katherine Borowitz.

Among this year's Oscar Bait options, consider the latest Coen Brothers "art project": The Man Who Wasn't There. Like TV's The Simpsons, the Coen Brothers seem well past their prime, and yet their material is better than the vast majority of their competition.

The latest in a long line of obsessive Coen film noirs, the new film maximizes star Billy Bob Thornton and cinematographer Roger Deakins (here delivering beautiful black-and-white), synthesizing a typically clever and gorgeous Coen concoction. Thornton's sad sack dreamer is indelible, and his hazy, drifting journey through the film—and amongst the cornball eccentrics familiar to Coen fans—is affecting.

Unsatisfied with mastering one tone, the Coens continue to send pathos and screwball comedy careening into each other, but I wouldn't trade Thornton or Tony Shalhoub as his crazily wired lawyer foil. If you're in the mood for something different, strap in and take the ride.

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