Intolerable Cruelty

You never know whether the Coen brothers are being serious, God bless them. Are they really selling out here, working for the first time from a screenplay they didn’t write, under Brian Grazer, the most mainstream of mainstream producers? Or are they using the system to concoct another of their wicked little exercises in style? It’s hard to tell.

George Clooney stars as Miles Massey, the best divorce attorney in California and probably the whole country. He’s incredibly successful, too successful, so much that he’s growing bored. He finally gets jolted again when he crosses paths with Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a breathtaking man-eater that goes from husband to husband, always getting richer. It seems like the two have met their match and it’s gonna be an epic battle of scheming and trickery, that is until they realise that they’re falling for each other… Or is that another trick?

This is a premise as old as time, you just know that fabulous looking characters who hate each other this much must actually be in love. This describes just about every trite romantic comedy, but it also goes back to the screwball classics of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Indeed, Clooney seems to be channeling Cary Grant and Zeta-Jones’s got a bit of that Katherine Hepburn magic. Unfortunately, all the charisma between them doesn’t serve similarly sparkling writing. There’s a lot of rapid-fire dialogue, but it’s not particularly witty, it’s just rapid. Then there’s the jittery pacing, showing a moment here and a moment there then taking “six months later” jumps… We can see that the leads are attracted to each other, but they’re not given the time or the context to convince us that this is an actual romance.

Much fuss is made about asses, the nailing of asses, dogs, the biting of asses by dogs… Some of it is amusing, but we expect more from the Coens than such broad comedy or easy digs at Botox or reality TV. And what’s with all the characters with respiratory problems? Thankfully we do get some juicy supporting roles like Geoffrey Rush as a pony-tailed Daytime Television producer, Billy Boy Thornton as a dim-witted Texas oil tycoon and Bruce Campbell as a soap opera actor (like in Fargo). Frequent Coen collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell make sure the film looks and sounds good, as do the impeccable production design and a bunch of Simon & Garfunkel songs.

So this is a conventional film, but not that conventional. Even when it goes for clichés like the big inspirational speech (“Love is good.”) set to syrupy music and met with a slow-clap (you know the kind: clap… clap… clap, clap, clap, CLAP!CLAP!CLAP!CLAP!CLAP!), you can’t help but feel that the Coens have their tongue firmly pushed into their cheek. By Coen standards this is a minor effort, but it’s still superior to the average rom-com.