When aspiring writers approach hybridmagazine.com, they
must audition by submitting a sample review of a Coen Brothers
movie, any Coen Brothers movie. I want to see that they can
write passable English, but mainly I want to see whether they
“get” movies. No points off for their opinions of the movie
they choose. What better filmmakers to audition on than the
Coens, whose many projects have all been quite varied and
yet quite unmistakably Coen at the same time. Intolerable
Cruelty will be the movie that breaks the tradition.
Intolerable Cruelty has its blackly comic moments,
but fails to take us to that loony-toons Coen universe of,
say, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, or even The
Man Who Wasn’t There. Partly, the trouble lies in the
Coens’ having to work with material not wholly theirs. They
share screenwriting credit with Robert Ramsey and Matthew
Stone, who also wrote middle-mind fare such as Big
Trouble and Life. Another problem probably lies
in the Coens’ crush on George Clooney. Hell, I’m hot
for him myself, but that’s no reason to make a movie, you
know? That liking may have caused them to jump unwisely at
the opportunity to work with Clooney again. They are good
at playing off of Clooney’s rep for being oh-so-aware of his
good looks and charm by fetishizing some aspect of his vanity.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou? they made sport of his
preoccupation with his coiffure; here they poke fun at his
Clooney plays a lawyer, Miles Massey, whose specialities
are ironclad prenups and fantastic divorce settlements. He
is a charmingly glib, heartless bastard who falls like a sack
of hammers for Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), who is
pursuing a career in serial monogamy among the very rich.
When Massey euchres Marilyn out of a divorce settlement, despite
the fact that her husband Rex (Herrmann) was caught
in flagrante delicto, she decides to take this man down a
notch. There are various twists and turns on the way to the
resolution—of course the path of true love ne’er runs smooth—but
none of them elicit that surprised gasp that is the Coens’
stock in trade. Usually these guys are like the Fleischer
Brothers would have been if they’d worked with actors
instead of cartoons—you just hang on for the wild ride while
wondering, “What the hell were they smoking?” In Intolerable
Cruelty, you’ll be able to see around nearly every hairpin
turn from a mile off.
This is a pretty darn broad comedy, one that takes easy shots
at LA matrons whose lives are ruled by plastic surgeries,
quack anti-aging treatments, shopping, and general cultural
wackiness of the sort that has only just recently netted them
the governor they so richly deserve. And Miles is apparently
president-for-life of N.O.M.A.N., the National Organization
of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide. Their slogan—“let N.O.M.A.N.
put asunder…”—and other rather obvious jokes like this land
with little thuds throughout the movie. The Coens also indulge
their fondness for certain stock moments. They like for characters
to look straight in each other’s faces and yell “AHHHH!” Clooney
and Adelstein, who plays his sidekick Wrigley, do
so here, much as Forsythe and Goodman did in
Raising Arizona. And in fact, the only genuine love
here would seem to be between Clooney and Wrigley, who wants
to be Miles only slightly less than Smithers wants to be (or
be with) Mr. Burns.
There are some excellent performances here. Edward Herrmann
is ideal casting for the risible rich guy who’s married a
golddigger; he’s just the sort to wear garters with his socks.
Here, with his big goofy baby face and sputtering outrage,
he channels Edward Everett Horton to a T. When Billy
Bob Thornton shows up, we get the only real return to
the trademark Coen dialogue lunacy in the movie. And there’s
a thoroughly creepy turn by some centenarian-looking actor
whose performance evokes Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein.
On the other hand, Cedric the Entertainer and Geoffrey
Rush are pretty much wasted. Miles Massey, moral relativist
and divorce litigator extraordinaire, is a role tailor-made
for Clooney, whose career can only benefit from stepping away
from the ultra-cool leading man thing for roles that allow
him to be both sexy and ridiculous. He is well matched by
Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose attractions are equally devastating.
Together they present a picture almost too blindingly dazzling
to look at. But coasting on pretty people, no matter how considerable
their charms, doesn’t make a movie. And in a Coen Brothers
project, it’s just shocking.