Man's troubles pile up in dark, betrayal-filled 'Devil'

"Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" is being hailed as an indictment of the dark side of the American Dream, or something. But so what?

The American Dream gets indicted more often than Michael Vick. The noteworthy thing about "Devil," for certain admirers of Marisa Tomei, is that it's the greatest Tomei movie ever made, or that could ever be made, outside the auspices of the Spice Channel.

It's Tomei like you've never seen her before. Remember Seth Rogen's proposed business model for a soft-core Web site in "Knocked Up" - FleshOfThe It pinpointed the DVD location of every actor's most notorious nude scene.

"Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" was made for that Web site.

As for the rest, be it known that this movie opened in New York last week to universal raves, so let me crawl out on a limb, saw in hand.

I didn't get it.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a white-collar Manhattanite whose tailored suits and slick hair present a smooth surface that hides desperate turmoil underneath.

His marriage (to Tomei) is falling apart, he's mired in debt due to severe personal problems the movie divulges as its fractured chronology slowly sorts itself out.

Hoffman's character concocts a desperate scheme to raise some dirty cash, recruiting his equally hapless brother (Ethan Hawke) to rob a suburban jewelry story.

What could go wrong?

One look at these two screw-ups, and you know the answer - everything. There is the matter of Hawke's obvious incompetence, and the story slowly tips us to the utter faithlessness of the brothers' family, one prone to monumental betrayal.

Just one of these betrayals should be enough for any movie. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," though, is silly with them, and the mounting treachery (and addictions and felonies) becomes too much.

The movie's insistent darkness begins to feel like a pose: The world is an evil place, says one character, and if you don't find a way to profit from it, you're destroyed. The words are credited to screenwriter Kelly Masterson. Did somebody give Neil Labute the week off?

It seems to me the movie overestimates just how many of us are wrecking homes, embezzling funds or taking heroin injections from the transvestite hostess of a high-rise shooting gallery.

And I'm sorry, but the Original Sin cited as the cause of all this struck me as funny. The sibling story in "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" may want to reach all the way back to Cain and Abel, but I only got as far as the Smothers Brothers - mom always liked you best.

Shaky ground for tragedy. *

Produced by Michael Cerenzi, Brian Linse, Paul Parmar and William S. Gilmore, directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Kelly Masterson, music by Carter Burwell, distributed by ThinkFilm.