Yesterday PJ and I saw Sidney Lumet’s new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei. Here’s the trailer:

BtDKYD is about two brothers who are both in dire financial straits. Hoffman’s Andy is a drug addict who’s been stealing from his corporate account in order to finance his lifestyle and habit. Hawke’s Hank is Andy’s younger, ne’er do well brother who owes three months of child support to his ex-wife. Andy figures out a way to solve all of their problems: they just need to knock off their parents’ suburban jewelry store, which he argues will be a victimless crime due to their parents’ insurance. Not surprisingly, the heist goes terribly wrong, sending the lives of all of the characters into a chaos.

Let’s start with what I like about this movie: Albert Finney, who plays the two men’s domineering father. He plays the most complex character in the movie. His role is really limited to two substantive scenes, but he’s brilliant in both. His character also has the widest emotional arc, despite the limited screen time. He’s really great in this role.

Maybe it says a lot about the film that the most complex and emotionally complicated character has the least amount of screen time of the five primary characters. While everyone else is perfectly fine in their roles, with Hawke perhaps turning in the best performance of the other four actors, the movie as a whole struck me as rather pedestrian and predictable. With the notable exception of Marissa Tomei’s breasts, I felt like I had seen everything this movie had to offer before.

In fact, Hawke is also quite good. His character, unfortunately, is completely unlikable — he’s too much of a loser to be believable. One can’t help but wonder how he can function on even the most basic level in life. I like Hawke as an actor, but this movie doesn’t work and his character becomes the focus of the other men’s machinations. One of the (many) things I didn’t like is that Hawke’s character, who is definitely straight, is often called a faggot by Hoffman’s older brother character. Andy and their father frequently berate him and question his masculinity in homophobic ways. While I can accept and even admire some depictions of homophobia in films, ones that are critiquing it, for example, this film doesn’t really do that. It’s just one of several ways that this film could have been smarter.

I was especially put off by Lumet’s direction. He clearly thinks his audience is too stupid to follow the film’s jumps in time, which go back and forth as it follows the leads over the course of a week. Each change in perspective is accompanied by a caption informing us of which day we’re on — the day of the robbery, four days before the robbery, two days later, etc. I kept thinking how much smarter Quentin Tarrantino assumes his audience is, since he never tells us what’s going on. We have to figure it out for ourselves. I think BtDKYD could have made us work harder, made us figure things out. It would have been more enjoyable if it had been more challenging, if it had thought more highly of us.

There were also a lot of logical problems with the film. How would such as a schlub as Andy end up married to the very hot Tomei? Why does Tomei’s character have the issues she has (and she has a lot of issues)? How old is she supposed to be? Is the father, Finney’s character, simply emotionally unavailable to his children or did he abuse them when they were kids? And most importantly, why don’t the police come to arrest Andy as soon as his company finds out that his accounts have such majors inconsistencies and errors?

Overall, this film was just nothing special. I kept thinking how pedestrian its plot and direction is. I wish Lumet, who has directed such great films in the past, would have taken us someplace new, someplace interesting.

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