Yes, this is a bit lower on the quirk-o-meter than usual for the Coen brothers, but that hardly means that Intolerable Cruelty is quirk-free. In just about anyone else’s filmography, it would be considered at least mildly off-the-wall.
While neither as good — nor as strange — as Coen offerings Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers’ new film is better than Raising Arizona and Fargo (I’m in the minority on that one) — and a masterpiece compared to The Big Lebowski. Out of all the Coens’ films, it probably most resembles a less fanciful The Hudsucker Proxy, owing to its romantic-comedy underpinnings, though it shares something of the lineage of O Brother in that the specter of Preston Sturges is once again in evidence.
Where O Brother postulated the movie that the Sullivan’s Travels hero might have made had he not learned his lesson to stay away from making serious films, Intolerable Cruelty is grounded in Sturges’ The Lady Eve — with a nod to The Palm Beach Story, and the recreation of the mood from Unfaithfully Yours thrown in for seasoning.
Apart from a direct reference to Rudy Vallee’s oil tycoon in The Palm Beach Story — here incarnated by Billy Bob Thornton — there are few direct references to Sturges’ work. (I’m willing to bet, though, that if Sturges stock player Frank Moran were alive today, he’d have gotten the role of Wheezy Joe.) The setup, however, is not dissimilar to The Lady Eve in that Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) plots an elaborate revenge on Miles Massey (George Clooney) that includes marrying him — much as Barbara Stanwyck did with Henry Fonda 60-odd years ago.
Unfortunately, the Coens are just a little shy of the mark this time. A quick scan of the credits reveals three other writers (not to mention the chilling presence of the name Brian Grazer in the producer column). Instead of originating the material, the brothers have taken someone else’s script and remonkeyed it to their own ends. Sometimes this tack works beautifully; other times it sputters slightly. And while Intolerable Cruelty never stalls, it also never quite scales the heights we know the boys are capable of reaching.
The story is good (and unsentimental enough to suit the filmmakers): a no-holds-barred comedy about a ruthless and egotistical divorce lawyer who meets his match in a woman whose plans he thwarts for a killing in a divorce settlement. Then too, the acting is first-rate. George Clooney — maybe the only movie star of today who actually seems like a movie star — once again proves that if anybody has inherited the mantle of Cary Grant, it’s him. Indeed, his Miles Massey could give Grant’s Walter Burns in His Girl Friday a run for his money in manic energy, undeserved charm and unscrupulousness. Without Clooney, this movie would just lie there and die there like some cinematic landed fish.
Zeta-Jones isn’t his equal, but she does manage to carry off her role with the aplomb and cynicism it requires. What she lacks in performance, she makes up for in coolness. There are also bright contributions from Edward Herrmann, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer and Billy Bob Thornton, but it’s ultimately Clooney’s show, and he manages to make you believe there are at least four balls in the juggling act even when there are only two. The Coens, on the other hand, seem to be contenting themselves — or maybe distracting themselves — with little touches, as when Marilyn and veteran divorce schemer Sarah Sorkin (Julia Duffy, TV’s Newhart) sadly discuss their “careers” as Edith Piaf’s “No, I Regret Nothing” plays in the background, or by following up a convoluted gag about Mount Everest reels later by having a book on the topic on Marilyn’s bedside table. It’s great stuff, but it’s seasoning applied to not much substance.
At other times, the Coens just try too hard. There’s a grafted-on Abbott and Costello-like cross-talk routine in court that strains to be clever, and there’s the gross-out humor of Miles’ senior partner (Tom Aldredge), who reads Living Without Your Intestines magazine, and seems more like Tully Marshall in Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire than anything out of the Sturges canon. Still, enough of it works to make Intolerable Cruelty more than slightly worth your while — especially in this age of ever-more-infantile rubbish passing for comedy.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke