before the devil knows you're dead (2007)

This film put a smile on my face, and a pretty big smile at that. Not only am I finally on my way to actually checking out all of the great 2007 films I keep hearing so damn much about, but this is yet another instance this year of one of the all-time greats, a man who's been in this industry for over 50 freakin' years, Sidney Lumet, stepping behind the camera again and delivering one heck of a film. It's great to see that the guy's still got it. He's not Hollywood royalty like Scorsese, nor an art-house god like Altman, but he is an outstanding 70's filmmaker who's here in the new millenium still doing what he does best. And, I have to say, Before the Devil Knows you're Dead honestly does rank with some of his best. No, it's not a masterpiece like Network, and it won't have a tenth of the cultural impact of Dog Day Afternoon, but as far as filmmaking goes, it's just as good. It's easily one of my favorites of the year so far, and as we move closer to a top 10 list, I'm pretty positive you'll be seeing it mentioned. It hits a wonderful blend of tongue-in-cheek humor (humor so under-the-radar, I may have been imagining it ... no one in my theater even chuckled ... hmmmm), a nicely weaved storyline and a cast of three-dimensional, well-drawn characters. In short, a great time. Did I mention Marisa Tomei? Yeah. 

Yeah. Tomei is probably in a collective fifteen minutes of the film, and the rest of this review could easily be about her alone. The woman is stunning. Although there's not much to say about her part or performance considering the role of her character is simply to be hot and naked in every scene she's involved in. Which she excels at. Yes, I forgot to mention, my earlier comment about the wonderful three-dimensional characters was relegated to the male roles only. This aspect of the film provided more than a few of those darkly funny moments, I also previously mentioned, that made the film work so well. Tomei's character is a riot. But don't trust me, I'm apparently a misogynist, and I happen to be one of the few in the audience who thought Lumet's particular brand of misogyny in this film was quite comical. Okay, I'm starting to think they're right about me after all. Although, I guess that's it; one has to be kind of a misanthrope to even find any comedy at all in watching a group of selfish bastards lives' spiral out of control. It's the same reason I got such a kick out of 2005's Match Point, and Lumet expertly matches Allen's tone with this flick. The fun part here is that the film's structure perfectly responds to the characters; these pricks are so selfish that they each get their own mini-movie within the film. The story that this flick has to tell is pretty short and straightforward, but we get it from three or four different angles by telling it from each of the main male characters differing points of view. You would think that with Lumet's love of Rashomon ( he even did a TV version of it a few decades ago) that this would be the heist-film re-working of that tale, but this isn't giving us differing versions in hopes we'll discern the truth, the events remain the same each time, it's to get us into the head of each of these selfish male characters and into the detached personal world that each one of them lives in. It's these worlds that make the comedy of the film work to the greatest degree. Our protagonists are, for the most part, just lonely, and they're looking for happiness in a world where blood isn't just thicker than water, it's pretty much all there is. Everything else is money. Money and family, each one trumping the other at various points. Are you loving this as much as I am? The film is a blast. The three male leads whose point of view we get the tale from are Andy, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, and Charlie, played by Albert Finney, and they all do a fantastic job as screw-ups who continue to push things further rather than knowing how to diffuse situations. Which brings us back to Marisa Tomei. Tomei provides the anchor for the two younger leads, mostly for Hoffman considering she plays his wife. But that's it and that's all, the film's view of its characters is so slanted that everyone but the three leads is treated as an unimportant circumstance, we only see Tomei's emotions when they have a direct impact on Hoffman or Hawke. It's jarring to see her have feelings of her own late in the film, it's a wake up call that the world doesn't revolve around our leads. So you should be seeing a bit of how this whole crazy jumble works so well. I'll stop with plot explanations there because none of the fun should be ruined for you. Wouldn't be right. 

Let's bring it all back to my man Lumet right now, the guy is just awesome. At 83, this is all we could ask for but I'm really hoping he's with us for years to come and giving us a few more great flicks before his time comes. Directing is a tough task to be sure, though, so I'd understand it if he'd want to step back. In the photos for this film's premier, though, he looks healthy and happy, which is great. His direction is really on and even looking like it did in Network in more ways than one, the biggest being his mastery of the tone. Just like in Network, he's dealing with some real issues, though they're not quite as intense in this film, and they're more moral than social, they're driven home by the film's finale. He directs this thing like a symphony conductor, bringing up the music in many cases, swelling the plot and drama only to bring it back down in the next few moments, swirling the plot together with a unique and clever style. The film is never dull, even for a moment. The only complaint I would have is that the film cuts into the world of each character a bit too often, we jump around a lot on the time-line and it's constantly signalled by flash cuts, loud noise and a little title bar telling us what day/time it is and which character we're following, etc. It wasn't really essential, we could have figured it out. Actually, who the hell am I kidding, maybe a lot of people wouldn't have. whatever. Anyway that and a little bit of restraint on the film's last ten minutes or so would have gone a long way. I'm on the fence about what was off in the ending, because most of it worked exceptionally. Oh well, I'm rambling now. I guess this all brings us back to Marisa Tomei. Honestly, in a film of highlights, she's possibly the brightest. The rest of the cast turns in fine performances as well, in fact it's a great effort from all involved. Rosemary Harris is given very limited screentime, but she makes the most of it for sure. Albert Finney continues to pop up in an increasingly large number of films as of late, and I'm not complaining, the guy does consistently great work. He's a long-time favorite, and not just because he's starred opposite Audrey Hepburn, although that helps. Anyway, the film is well-shot and the plot twists just enough to keep things interesting, but never overdoes it with a gimmick or uneven developments. In fact, the more I think about this thing, the more I enjoy it. My hat's off to Lumet and everyone involved, they all did a great job. This thing has plenty of aspects to really savor. Did I mention Marisa Tomei yet?

So yeah, check this one out asap if you can, it's not playing in many theaters, but if you can get to it, it's worth the time. Unfortunately, it falls into the same category that everything else I've recommended this year falls into: I liked the film an awful lot, but it never quite pushed it to a level of something that I'd define as a "must-see". All we've gotten this year are some films that more enjoyable than most, but we've gotten a lot so who am I to complain. I've got a lot more to see while I'm home for break, so check back often, there'll be a few more updates in the next few days. Let's hope something pushes it to the next level, but if not, Lumet's great film is enough to keep me going. Here's hoping he'll be returning to the director's chair in the near future too, I'll be in the theater when he does.