Thursday, October 09, 2003
Film: Prenuptial emasculation
Intolerable Cruelty relaunches the battle of the sexes
By Anthony Allison
Intolerable Cruelty is a bright, breezy sex comedy, with George Clooney in top comic form as a hotshot Beverly Hills divorce lawyer who falls for Catherine Zeta-Jones' gorgeous gold digger. But despite its stars' sizzling screen chemistry, this wannabe screwball gem is little more than a mildly entertaining social satire, poking fun at venal attorneys and the prenuptial agreements they love. Light, slight and flimsy, the latest film directed by Joel Coen and co-written by his brother Ethan, is entertaining as far as it goes, but it's sure no Fargo.
So, Coen-heads, when is a Coen brothers movie not a Coen brothers movie? Answer: When it's (mostly) written by someone else.
For the first time, the Minnesota mavericks here use non-original material. Sure, the siblings' entire career has been built on parodies and pastiches, inventive reworking of other people's work, from Homer (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to Dashiell Hammett (Miller's Crossing), via Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski), James M. Cain (The Man Who Wasn't There) and Hammett and Cain combined (Blood Simple).
But Cruelty's story is by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano, with the Coens taking a joint screenplay credit with Ramsey and Stone, who co-wrote last year's Tim Allen bomb Big Trouble, and 1999's Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.
The Barton Fink boys have also taken a major leap into the broad movie mainstream, by teaming with big-time Hollywood producer Brian Grazer (Splash, Parenthood, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). The resulting marriage of lowbrow populism with quirky Coenesque accents makes an uneasy alliance that really only works thanks to the superb cast.
The devilishly handsome Clooney reinforces his status as the thespian heir to Cary Grant with a daringly over-the-top portrayal of vain, jaded matrimonial attorney Miles Massey, whose cynicism is punctured when he meets Zeta-Jones' Marylin Rexroth, the estranged spouse of his latest client (Edward Herrmann). After much delightfully flirtatious sparring, Clooney's big speech at a Caesars Palace convention of the "National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide," (motto: "let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder,") is a great climax, if not quite a truly showstopping moment.
With her dazzling beauty and perfect timing, Zeta-Jones makes the ideal comic foil, as the scheming man-eater, trawling high society's waters for wealthy prey. Her character seems to have strayed from some ancient artifact like How to Marry a Millionaire or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But in a world where Anna Nicole Smith (who appeared in the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy) can parlay gold digging into minor celebritydom, the archetype apparently remains current.
The Coens' customary gaggle of great supporting players includes Billy Bob Thornton, in hilarious form as a motormouth Texas oil baron, Paul Adelstein as Massey's sentimental fellow counsel, and Tom Aldredge as Herb Myerson, the senior partner of Massey's worst nightmares, an octogenarian grotesque complete with oxygen cylinder, colostomy bag and a magazine titled Living Without Intestines.
Less effective are Geoffrey Rush's cuckolded soap-opera mogul, Jonathan Hadary's flamboyant, French-accented concierge and Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye specializing in catching philandering spouses in flagrante. It's clear that screenwriters Ramsey and Stone aren't in the same league as the Coens when they're on their own. The silliness is embroidered with some inspired black-comedy touches, especially one moment of slapstick perfection involving Irwin Keyes as Wheezy Joe, a shady operative hired by Massey. And there's witty use of Simon and Garfunkel standards, including the kilt-and-bagpipes finale to a sequence in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. But ultimately, the Coens' first truly mainstream flick meets all the usual requirements: It's flimsy, frivolous and forgettable.