The so-called Uncertainty Principle plays a central role in the Coen brothers' black-comic crime drama "The Man Who Wasn't There."
"There is no 'what happened,'" lectures cocky, high-priced attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). "Looking at something changes it."
Riedenschneider is preparing a slippery defense for his clients, suspected murderess Doris Crane (Frances McDormand) and her husband, Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), a taciturn barber who is actually responsible for the crime. But the lawyer could be speaking for the Coens, who typically look at something familiar -- here, the school of hard-boiled fiction exemplified by James M. Cain, whose novels inspired the films "Double Indemnity," "Mildred Pierce" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- and in so doing, change it to reflect their sardonic perspective.
All the conventions are in place: infidelity, blackmail, death and a haze of cigarette smoke. As Ed, Thornton sports a stone face, extreme eyebrows and greyed, slicked-back hair that bespeak the older Bogart. In his measured, pulp-grave narration, Ed tells us how he came to kill Big Dave (James Gandolfini), a department-store boss he suspected of bedding his wife. When Doris goes to jail and Ed begins to tag after a similarly composed bobby-soxer nicknamed Birdy (Scarlett Johnansson of "Ghost World"), a different confluence of icons asserts itself: He's now Jack Webb following the Jerry Lee Lewis playbook.
That flirtation with pedophilia is one of the amusing incongruities with which the film demystifies its 1940s-California milieu. Ethnic slurs are dropped without reservation; the legal process is realistically slow, and a toupee-wearing entrepreneur (Jon Polito) makes a sexual pass at Ed while cementing a business deal.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white that brings out the beauties and grotesqueries in every setup. When the summer wind rustles through the tree branches, we can almost feel the breeze. Of course, we're seldom more than a few seconds away from another patented Coen drollery ("Dry cleaning. Was I crazy to be thinking about it?") or offbeat visual image. (See an obese man ride a pig!)
What's missing is the warmth and affection that mark the Coens' best work. The new film's characters are worthy of inspection, but far less sympathetic than the main players in "Raising Arizona," "Fargo" or "O Brother," "Where Art Thou?" And the storytelling takes a turn toward the aimless that (as in "Waking Life") the script tries to excuse by admitting outright. Blithe reflexivity, it appears, is the new black. But it looks like even more of a modern-day cop-out when juxtaposed against the old black and white.