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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (5/10)

by Tony Medley

This movie starts out with a disgusting scene of two people rutting in bed while the man, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), watches in the mirror. So self-absorbed is he that he doesn't even let the woman, his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei) watch with him, which epitomizes why she is driven from the marriage. From there it gets worse. I can’t think if any reason to recommend this movie. The story of a jewel theft gone horribly wrong, it is the quintessential downer.

Andy convinces his weak, reluctant brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), to rob a jewelry store in a strip mall. Too weak to do it himself, Hank gets help and everything goes from bad to worse.

83-year-old legendary director Sidney Lumet is trying to make a comeback with this film from the deplorable Find Me Guilty (2006), and he doesn’t get back very far here. He starts with three strikes against him as far as I’m concerned by taking a beautiful, humorous Irish blessing, “May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” and uses it to entitle this dark, dour, depressing dirge.

You would think that after 83 years, Lumet would have figured out that movies without an admirable protagonist, without someone to root for, have dim prospects to expect audiences leave in a positive frame of mind. There is not one main character that could be called admirable.

Further detracting from the film, without commenting on the moral one might derive from it, are two very large detriments. The first consists of the many flashbacks Lumet inflicts on the audience. It seems as if every 15 minutes or so there is another flashback to tell the story of the robbery from someone else’s POV, sort of Rashômon-lite (for the record, Lumet directed a TV version of Rashomon in 1960). But unlike Akira Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 flashbacks, these are just annoying.

The second drawback is the total absence of humor. The situation is so depressing that the script needs something to give a respite from the gloom during its 118-minute running time. Hitchcock was a master at adding some humor to alleviate the tension. After his failed attempt at humor in Find Me Guilty, this outing just reinforces the suspicion that Lumet no longer has that talent.

Speaking of that running time, this is so slow, and the flashbacks so repetitive, that people were actually snoring in the audience of my viewing. My watch was almost worn out from my constant checking to see how close we were to the end.

On the positive side, for most men, anyway, Tomei, whose character is also having an extra-marital affair with her brother-in-law, Hank, appears topless throughout the first half of the film.

The acting is very good. Aiding Hoffman and Hawke and Tomei are Albert Finney as Andy and Hank’s father and Rosemary Harris as their doomed mother. Alas, good performances are not enough to justify foisting this film and this story (Kelly Masterson) on an audience with a title and cartoon poster that could entice them into the theater under false pretenses, without suspecting what it is that they are in for. I wouldn't object so strenuously if it were properly advertised so that people would know what to expect, a sordid story of a disfunctional family that, even though it is slowly told. Not knowing what to expect, my friend found it so distressful that it caused her to leave the theater with an upset stomach.

November 3, 2007