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Sidney Lumet's
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Above: Ethan Hawke (L) and Philip Seymour Hoffman / Below: Hawke and Hoffman with Sidney Lumet



Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Reviewed by Lawrence Levi

Sidney Lumet has been making movies for 50 years, and though his track record is spotty, the man who directed Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network generally deserves the benefit of the doubt. (Insert your own Wiz, Morning After or Gloria quip here.) His latest, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers, and Albert Finney as their dad. It features a robbery gone wrong; it takes place primarily in New York City. And it has Marisa Tomei, often in very little clothing. In short, it’s highly promising. So why is it so bad?

You could say that things go wrong from the very first scene, in which Hoffman and Tomei — each quite naked — are humping away, doggie-style. Hoffman is possibly the best American actor working today, capable of playing comedy or drama, gay or straight, meek or menacing, all with equal authority. He is a genius. But no one wants to see him naked. (Tomei, on the other hand, looks great, which may be why she’s as conspicuously unclothed as Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.) They’re Andy and Gina, a married couple on vacation in Rio; they’re usually not this happy. Their nakedness and their frank pillow talk signals an emotional honesty to come, but what follows is less hard-hitting than it is absurd.

Hawke is Hank, Andy’s younger, cuter, poorer brother. He’s behind on his child support and even his schoolgirl daughter thinks he’s a loser. (She tells him so.) Hank needs money to regain her respect and get his ex off his back; Andy wants money to bring some joy back into his life. The action is non-linear, so before we even know how these apparently law-abiding siblings got involved in crime, we know that the robbery — of jewelry store in a suburban strip mall — is a failure, with a masked thief going down in a mess of blood and shattered glass. And we soon learn that their parents (Finney and Rosemary Harris, Aunt May in the Spider-Man movies) are also involved, as victims. A hellacious downward spiral is foreshadowed and fulfilled. It’s Greek tragedy meets noir: an Oedipal melodrama with a narrative thread asking, how did it come to this?

Lumet is legendary as a director of actors, and Hoffman is outstanding. His Andy — a real-estate accountant who lives beyond his means, indulging in sordid pursuits that I won’t reveal — is a cunning manipulator, and as his world starts to come apart he becomes frighteningly, repulsively fierce. Hawke’s Hank is whiny and desperate; with his habitual grinning, he seems to be doing a Tom Cruise impersonation. The problem is that we get no real sense of what these characters were like before everything went haywire, so little is believably at stake. Finney is formidable as a man transformed by grief and rage, but the emotional conflict with his sons comes out of nowhere. The fairly outrageous direction of the plot is more credible than their messed-up family dynamic.

“In the early days of television, when the ‘kitchen sink’ school of realism held sway, we always reached a point where we ‘explained’ the character,” Lumet wrote in his 1995 book, Making Movies. “Around two-thirds of the way through, someone articulated the psychological truth that made the character the person he was. [Paddy] Chayefsky and I used to call this the ‘rubber-ducky’ school of drama: ‘Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.’ That was the fashion then, and with many producers and studios it still is.” Indeed, Kelly Masterson, the first-time screenwriter behind Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, gives Andy a rubber ducky: Dad loved Hank more, because he was the cuter, younger sibling. That’s what precipitates the story’s betrayals and bloodshed.

And since this is primarily a man’s story, all but two of the women are shrews. Hank and Andy’s mother is a saint, serving as a plot device. Gina is a cipher. Her own supposed unhappiness is another plot hinge, but we know so little about her that she’s impossible to read. Is she an aimless ditz who thinks Spanish and Portuguese are the same language, as she tells Andy? Or a crafty player who’s having a hot affair and gets turned on when Andy hints at his secret criminal life? In her early scenes, when she’s in the sack, Tomei makes Gina sexy and somewhat mysterious, but by midpoint she’s irrelevant.

All this could be tolerable if the movie had any wit. Lumet’s best movies, especially Dog Day Afternoon, are funny even as they’re tragic. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is more like his films The Pawnbroker and The Offense — oppressively solemn. This is a movie in which someone actually says, “The world is an evil place, Charlie. Some people get destroyed.” Near the end, when Hoffman, in a perfect deadpan, delivers the film’s sole ironic line, it’s too little, too late.




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