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Entertainment Story
Sibling ribaldry
Joel and Ethan Coen seem to be entering the mainstream with their new 'battle of the sexes' movies. But labels have never meant much to them
Barrett Hooper
National Post
CREDIT: Sue Gordon, Universal Studios
George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones looking fabulous.

There are certain things Joel and Ethan Coen, macabre masters of the eclectic and inventive, find funny. Hula Hoops, for example. And wood chippers, obviously. But also bowling balls, bluegrass music, urine-stained rugs, divorce attorneys, guys in kilts and George Clooney. Those last three are one and the same in the Coen brothers' latest screwball comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, which opens on Friday.

The film casts their O Brother, Where Art Thou? star as a smile-obsessed lawyer named Miles Massey, who becomes preoccupied with his philandering client's gold-digging ex-wife to the point where he can't decide whether to marry her or kill her. And with the Coens running the asylum, it's inevitable that at some point a .45 is mistaken for an asthma inhaler.

But even in light of how dark the movie is, Intolerable Cruelty is being billed as a '60s-style romantic comedy "about a man who wins in court and a woman who courts to win," and not as the latest comic noir from the twisted imaginations of the writer-director-producer duo behind the Dude-tastic The Big Lebowski and the hyperkinetic kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona.

"One of the reasons we were excited about doing this movie with George is that in our minds it's sort of reminiscent of this kind of screwball comedy that was done years and years ago," says Joel, who only wanted to make the film if Clooney was involved. "And we were confident that George would [as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?] understand the sort of style that needed to be brought to this picture in terms of the acting, and to a certain extent that's going out on a limb a little bit in terms of letting yourself be a little bit goofy." Clooney, of course, having introduced the world to Batnipples, has no difficulty appearing silly on screen.

It's a "battle of the sexes" story, continues Ethan, and "not so much a comedy about lawyers," adds Joel, as the two ping pong their way through this conversation about their latest project.

Intolerable Cruelty has a lot in common with "the leering sex comedies of the '60s," Ethan says.

"Like That Touch of Mink, I'll Take Sweden," continues Joel. "We grew up with that stuff. That was the stuff as little kids we thought was the pinnacle of cinematic art."

"Those were adult movies," says Ethan. "We tried to make an adult movie in those terms, which is incredibly juvenile."

While only Monday morning's box-office tally will determine which promotional tack might be best, the result is that Intolerable Cruelty is being perceived as the indie auteurs' most mainstream film to date. Clooney's and co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones's star power lend credence to that theory, as does the fact that the film is based on a script the Coens were asked to rewrite and not on an original script by them -- a first for the pair.

And given that their next film is a remake of the Alec Guinness classic The Ladykillers, with Tom Hanks and set in present-day Mississippi -- "It's very different from the English one; people speak in southern accents instead of English accents," Joel says -- some have voiced the opinion that the Blood Simple brothers are in some way betraying their indie film roots.

Not that any of that has ever mattered to Joel or Ethan.

"Every movie that we've done, with the exception of Barton Fink, we've sort of hoped would be mainstream," says Ethan, the younger Coen and the one not married to Fargo star Frances McDormand. "It's really not our place to assign that label to it. Any movie you make you hope the most number of people watch it."

He continues: "The independent as opposed to studio distinction doesn't mean as much to people making movies as it does to the people who have to write about them. All of our movies, with the exception of our first one, were distributed by major studios."

Joel, 46, and Ethan, 38, are holding court in a swanky Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan, a setting these Minneapolis natives might not be entirely comfortable with, but befitting of Intolerable Cruelty's L.A. aesthetic. "Our movies usually have people in tatty wardrobe and tatty settings, [while Intolerable Cruelty has] George and Catherine looking fabulous and wearing fabulous clothes in fabulous settings with fabulous people," says Ethan.

Joel and Ethan write, direct, produce and edit (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) all their movies together, making it impossible to separate who does what. It's been that way since their first film, the 1984 Tex-noir Blood Simple, made them overnight sensations, and they've been known as the Director with Two Heads ever since.

"There really isn't a breakdown, there never has been," says Joel, fumbling for words. "We're both on the set all the time." He turns to his brother. "What is the breakdown?"

"We write together sitting in a room," Ethan starts. "There's no formal division of labour, no informal division. There's no division of labour." Beyond that, the Coens are pretty vague on exactly how they share their film duties, or even how their films get made.

Hollywood couldn't care less. Joel and Ethan Coen make movies studios like to be involved with. It lends them the whiff of artistic credibility and, as with Fargo (seven Oscar nominations, wins for best screenplay and McDormand for best actress, US$25-million at the box office) and O Brother (two Oscar nominations and a US$45-million take), they can sometimes reap critical and commercial benefits from the Coens' work.

As a result, Joel and Ethan Coen have a little more weight to throw around than their slight frames and meek demeanour might suggest. They were ranked #88 in Premiere magazine's 2003 Power 100 List, up four slots from last year. And in a more tangible example of their status in Hollywood, the pair also possess one of the greatest superpowers in cinema -- final cut -- something they've had since the beginning and that only a handful of other directors -- including Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino -- are blessed with.

But while they admit they get to do whatever they want "within limits," they're not invincible. There was one film they tried to get made but couldn't, To the White Sea. Based on the James Dickey novel, it was a near-dialogueless drama about a Second World War gunner who gets shot down behind Japanese lines, and his struggle to make it to safety. Even the star power of Brad Pitt, who was committed to play the lead, was not enough to convince a studio to pony up the more than US$60-million budget it required.

As Ethan put it, the project was "too expensive and too weird" to take a risk on the Coens, whose films rarely cost more than seven figures. "We're willing to work cheap."

 Copyright 2003 National Post
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