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Friday, February 1, 2008

Film Review: Actor's Director Lumet Can't Save So-So Script

Sidney Lumet's latest film in a 40-plus year career, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, won't do anything to knock Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, or 12 Angry Men from their exalted perches as masterpieces. Nor is it a disaster on the order of his Larry McMurtry adaptation Lovin' Molly. It's a solid, depressing film that seems to ask "You think you're family is screwed up?"

Lumet has always worked well with actors (even Vin Diesel), and he gets a strong cast here toplined by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays Andy Hanson, a repressed, bloated guy who just can't cut loose no matter how many drugs he takes. He also has bad money problems. Ethan Hawke, an actor who generally irritates me, is well-cast as his mealy sensitive brother who also has bad money problems. Albert Finney is excellent as their gruff immigrant father.

But the real standout is the consistently underrated Marisa Tomei -- married to Hoffman, sleeping with Hawke, and drifting through her life in search of some happiness. The first scene in the film shows a snatch of the carefree ease that she wishes for, vigorously making love with Hoffman in Florida. She is filled with such regret after that at first it seems like he is the one she is having an affair with. Like many of the best scenes in the film, its the actors who take this to another level.

The plot is simple: the brothers (or more precisely Hoffman in bullying older brother mode) hatch a plot to knock over a jewelry store and solve their money problems (though both have problems that seem bigger than the score they are going after). The catch is that the jewelry store is owned by their parents. It's enough to say that the robbery goes wrong and the unraveling of the consequences are what the film is concerned with.

Lumet and editor Tom Swartwout signals their interest in character by skipping back and forth within the story, often showing the same scenes at different times from different character's perspectives. They signal these cuts by flickering between the last image of the concluding sequence and the first image of the arriving sequence, a flashy choice that doesn't wholly have any payoff. Neither does the slightly jumbled structure that follows -- the main purpose seems to be to hide the conventionality of the underlying "watching a carwreck" story.

There are little details that don't quite hold up to scrutiny. Hoffman's character keeps monologuing his problems to his drug dealer. His dealer wisely suggests he get a shrink -- even he knows it's a cheap writer's shortcut into letting us know what a character is thinking. Hoffman is good enough as to render those scenes superfluous.

Before the Devil gets 3 out of 5 devil horns:

Here's the trailer:

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