Intolerable Cruelty

Oh brothers, where art thou?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Intolerable Cruelty is a romantic comedy by the Coen brothers, and it may well be the most unromantic, or anti-romantic, example of the genre ever made: the Coens are film-makers capable of cutting from a hotel corridor, gilded with erotic promise, to a pair of dangling colostomy bags. This is the brothers' first film from other writers' material. Some eight years ago, they did a rewrite of the script as a guns-for-hire job; after passing through other directors' hands, including Ron Howard's, it came back to them. The story is credited to "Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano", the screenplay to "Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen". In Hollywood, the difference between an "and" and an "ampersand" can signal whole histories of contractual debate, and that seems entirely appropriate for a legal comedy like this; but too often in the film, you find yourself distracted by wondering exactly what the Coens put into the property and what its previous occupants left behind.

The story - about a ruthless LA divorce attorney who falls for his equally ruthless victim-turned-client - allows the Coens to play with the barbed love-hate dynamics of the old Hepburn-Tracy duels, with dashes of Howard Hawks's merciless zip and Ernst Lubitsch's urbanity. The film certainly owes more to the sexual duelling of these older models than to the sappier sentiments of the contemporary rom-com genre. But the Coens' uniquely extra-terrestrial perspective is either lacking or patched in like an afterthought. There's little of the "Coens touch" here, only Coens touches, and they stick out as saliently as the defendant's bloodshot ears in one of the courtroom scenes.

In the lead casting, the brothers are working with one advantage and one disadvantage, respectively George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Till now, I've been sceptical of Clooney's reputation as a funny guy - especially given his leaden bumpkin clowning in the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But here he's superb as a smoothie in desperate straits, his silky finish fraying as compellingly as those of Cary Grant or Clark Gable before him. Clooney has never been more wolfish, working his jaw, eyebrows and especially his Sgt Fury forelock to full effect (like Hugh Grant, he uses his hair as an expressive extra limb). His attorney Miles Massey is a feral charmer, first seen in action crisply spinning a dazzled client through a riff of tall stories to try on in court: it allows Clooney to play on the glibness that sometimes attaches to his persona. Later, Clooney does a pretty neat variation on that timeless trope, the heartfelt Frank Capra speech - an emotional fluffy rug which, needless to say, the Coens quickly pull from under Miles's feet.

Whether or not there's natural chemistry with his female leads, Clooney is always willing to give it a fair shot: in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight he managed to spark even with the unpromising Jennifer Lopez. Here he gives Zeta-Jones every encouragement, but one player's delivery doesn't make a tennis match. There's a neat scene where the two of them choose a wine, and it's a mini-negotiation, dinner-table hardball. But it's Clooney who does the work, daring Zeta-Jones to play up, and mostly she tacitly, discreetly declines.

She plays Marylin Rexroth, a gold-digger done out of her expected divorce payment by one of Massey's legendarily cast-iron pre-nup agreements. Zeta-Jones as the litigious, financially canny wife of an older man - now some people might be inclined to call this novelty casting of the cheekiest kind. But Zeta-Jones isn't up to the joke: her Marylin is cold and silky, little more. A prisoner of her own poise, Zeta-Jones is the simulacrum of a star, a fabulously styled Vanity Fair photo-spread of a person who doesn't exist. If stardom is the ability to sashay down a staircase, poodle at her side, she has what it takes: what she patently lacks, given her inclination to play sexpots, is one iota of va-va-voom. In one scene, she wears a huge black hat, and you suddenly realise what she is - an apprentice Joan Collins.

The film is funny in flashes - verbal, as often as not - but is sometimes horribly misjudged. It's bookended by raucous farce - at one end, the comic cuckolding of a TV producer (Geoffrey Rush), at the other, an incongruous botched murder plot, heavy with black slapstick. The plot is slyly enough contrived, but lacks the inexorable twistiness that the brothers excel at, so you find yourself twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next whimsical amusement to come along. There are plenty, largely thanks to the Coens' 1930s-vintage genius for character casting: notably Jonathan Hadary's knowing showstopper as a grinning camp imp of a star witness, and Edward Hermann' s blubbery, wobbly fool of a tycoon. Most Coens-y of all, although he seems to belong to another film entirely, is Tom Aldredge as Massey's senior partner, a ghastly living cadaver ruling the world from his lair like a Francis Bacon pope a-dangle with surgical tubes.

Intolerable Cruelty is a game, honourable shot at making a lush mainstream comedy. It looks good, more opulent than we're used to with the Coens, with Roger Deakins' lighting rich and golden, making up for the lack of erotic warmth between the lead duo. But the Coens' imagination is invariably sparked more by low-life settings, and there's nothing here (the poolsides of rich bored matrons, the polished boardrooms) that we haven't seen in countless mainstream explorations of the LA life.

The deep problem with Intolerable Cruelty is that - whatever Lubitsch or Sturges or Cukor once managed - you can't easily, these days at least, make a romantic comedy that's also a cynical comedy about cynical people. And redemption notwithstanding, are these characters ever cynical? The final reconciliatory smooch must be among the least convincing in film history. The very final gag, about a TV game show, is a routine gesture of Coen-ly contempt for US entertainment culture, but it isn't worthy of them. Intolerable Cruelty is a project that might have worked best in the hands of a genuine naïf such as Ron Howard, who might have been encouraged to sharpen up interestingly; it just seems to have brought out the sneerers in the Coens, and they're worth more than that.