How many Hollywood comedies these days are fit for adult consumption? Not many, but "Intolerable Cruelty" from the Coen Brothers is a happy exception.
This romantic comedy about love and marriage in Beverly Hills, Calif., is more than tolerably wicked and witty. And though that description may sound like a self-contradiction, in the hands of those sly, excellent moviemakers the Coens, ably abetted by costars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, it isn't.
Instead, "Cruelty" is elegant, cheerfully cynical fun of the kind we used to get regularly from Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and other masters of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy -- all those '30s-'40s movies about rich people sloshed, or acting crazy and running romantically amok. And like this one, they made fun of social inequity, immorality and conspicuous consumption.
"Cruelty," as the name implies, is about the business of divorce. It's the tangled tale of a twisted love affair between the best divorce lawyer in town (Clooney) and the best divorcee (Zeta-Jones). The Coens' script, something they wrote years ago, apparently revised at some point from a Robert Ramsey-Matthew Stone ("Big Trouble") scenario, takes us into a Bel Air world of high finance, high style, low morals and low intentions. It's an amusingly exaggerated world where sex is the bait, money is the reward, and love is what smart guys and gals try to avoid.
Unsuccessfully, of course. But they try.
Clooney, looking suave, sleek, silly and Cary-Grantish as only he can, plays Miles Massey, a wealthy and famous divorce lawyer of shiny good looks and unscrupulous genius. He's a Nureyev of the divorce courts, creator of the legendary "Massey prenup," a prenuptial agreement so ironclad that fellow divorce lawyers (and Massey himself) shudder at its mention.
Zeta-Jones plays Marylin Rexroth, a ravishing, wannabe-wealthy divorcee with brains, gams and a talent for hooking and marrying rich chumps, catching them in flagrante delicto and separating the galoots from their loot.
It's a match made in screwball heaven and hell, a case of irresistible force meets immovable object. But in "Cruelty," they're both irresistible and something's gotta give. At first, Miles catches Marylin trying to fleece chubby hubby Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann, looking engagingly like Rudy Vallee on the banquet circuit) and whips her in court. Undeterred, Marylin shows up with another sucker husband, Texas oil billionaire Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), and confuses Miles completely by demanding a Massey prenup as proof of her love. Soon, the great lawyer's heart is fresh meat on her platter as well.
What is Marylin up to? Nothing conniving con woman Barbara Stanwyck didn't already try in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve." As for Clooney, he's like Gable crossed with Jack Lemmon: an impish, self-kidding hunk. These two are such fun to watch together that they make divorce and glamour a real lark, Zeta-Jones all but smirking at her patsies and Clooney so fixated on his teeth that he suggests a Colgate ad in formal wear.
Swirling around this dueling couple are a collection of Coen-style characters (caricatures with moxie): Geoffrey Rush as Donovan Donaly, lecherous TV producer turned homeless bum; Cedric the Entertainer as Gus Petch, private eye extraordinaire; Richard Jenkins as Freddy Bender, lower down than Miles on the divorce-lawyer food chain; Irwin Keyes as Wheezy Joe, hired killer with a health problem; and Paul Adelstein (of John Cusack's New Crimes Productions troupe) as Miles' man Friday, Wrigley.
Screwball comedy is a matter of characters, style, pace and great lines; "Intolerable Cruelty" has them all. Lately, Woody Allen is one of the few other American directors to try to modernize and keep the tradition alive, and the Coens are up to the challenge. They have almost everything going for them here, including a more than reasonable facsimile for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (or even William Powell and Myrna Loy) in Clooney and Zeta-Jones.
Working with a bigger budget than usual, the Coens and co-producer Brian Grazer manage to revive a form that has heretofore seemed dead -- or monopolized by the Brits. The lines crackle, the sexuality snaps, and we're plunged headfirst into a world of sumptuous surfaces and subversive wit. And every technical aspect of the movie is super: the gleaming cinematography by Roger Deakins, the posh production design by Leslie McDonald, the hip music by Carter Burwell -- even the editing by the mysterious "Roderick Jaynes," a Coen Brothers employee of almost mythical reputation.
If "Miller's Crossing" was the Coens' "Red Harvest," "Fargo" their "Double Indemnity," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" their gloss on "Sullivan's Travels," then this movie is their "The Awful Truth." But it's far from awful, and it has its share of bitter truth as well. Namely, divorce can be beautiful -- but probably not as beautiful as Zeta-Jones. Legal hanky-panky can be funny -- but probably not as funny as Clooney. And the one thing more foolproof than a Massey prenup is a movie by The Coen Brothers.