Although Sidney Lumet actually made a name for himself with 1957’s 12 Angry Men, it is his films from the seventies, like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon that still really seem to characterize his career for most of us. With a resume boasting over sixty directing gigs, let’s just say that they weren’t exactly all Serpico_s. While Lumet’s latest film, _Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead , begins boldly enough with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s flabby, white stomach knocking into Marisa Tomei’s perfectly formed lower back as they have hot, old-married-person-sex in a Brazilian hotel room, the tone quickly shifts when the very unnecessary subtitle “The day of the robbery” appears. Because , obviously the robbery scene that follows would not be enough for me to figure out that what I was seeing happened on “The day of the robbery.” Right.
Though Lumet manages to pull strong performances from his all-star cast of Hoffman, Tomei, Albert Finney and Ethan Hawk (which shouldn’t exactly be hard when two of these people are Oscar winners and one of them is Albert Finney), the film ultimately suffers from gimmicky editing, “plot twists” that aren’t really plot twists at all, and the kind of writing problems that could have easily been avoided had the film’s first-time screenwriter, Kelly Masterson work-shopped it in a 2nd year screen writing class. Not to mention the total clichesville story about betrayal and jewelry heists gone wrong, edited non-sequentially, Reservoir Dogs-style. It’s almost like we’re supposed to forget about the lame story and marvel over the so-called cleverness of the script. I’m all for clever scripts and non-linear editing obviously has it’s place; but in this case, Lumet is really just relying on cheap tricks. You know, like showing us the same scenes over and over again, from different perspectives to provide us with added insight into something that was already obvious. Oh yeah, and framing all of these scenes with even more captions like: “Hank: Three days before the robbery” and “Andy: Three days before the robbery.” If you’re going to keep on showing us the same scenes repeatedly, you don’t really need to keep telling us when they take place, do you? It’s kind of something that the audience probably could have picked up on their own.
That being said, the film is probably worth watching for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, alone. Though we’re all getting used to Hoffman’s recent transformation from being typecast in loser protagonist roles in understated indie movies to the kind of evil, character foils we’re seeing him portray in blockbusters, like Mission Impossible III, his subtle depiction of a controlling, high-powered broker who is willing to go much further than most of us would to maintain a lifestyle that is coming apart, further establishes him as one of those guys who actually deserves his Oscar. It’s just a little unfortunate that this performance couldn’t have been incorporated into a film whose script was properly edited prior to production, and at the very least in the hands of a director that still had an eye for quality control. If you want to see a good Lumet movie, you should probably just rent The Wiz.