Review: Intolerable Cruelty
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four
It seems likely that as kids the Coen brothers always had to be smarter than all the other kids in the room. All growed up, with Ethan as producer-screenwriter and Joel as director-screenwriter, they're often accused of making stooges of their characters and their audiences, keeping genuine emotion at bay with clever archness. I don't know if I fully buy that critique; Fargo flat out moved me, and there was a heartbeat in The Man Who Wasn't There that people didn't lean in close enough to hear. But Intolerable Cruelty is fodder for the dissenters, a heavy-lidded wink that employs the Coen arsenal of magnified gestures, literate lightning-speed banter and comic anti-romantic cynicism.
As usual, Roger Deakins' cinematography makes everything look both delicious -- people wear stiff, timeless movie star clothes -- and obscene -- the California swimming pools and marble mansions house monstrous gold diggers.
For a lead just as disgustingly good looking as the landscape, the Coens chose George Clooney, playing Miles Massey, an unctuous divorce lawyer bored with his constant victories; even a tennis ball machine isn't a worthy opponent.
Then a challenge walks into his office, all caramel-dipped curves, with an intimate understanding of how to wear a red dress. Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) doesn't win her suit against her philandering millionaire husband (Edward Hermann), but her scheming catches Miles' attention. These are two professional liars, both smarter than the cons they perpetrate. As screwball partners destined to scam and fall in love, they must generate sparks, if not fire.
Clooney is game; with his hair puffed and parted like Cary Grant, he belies his own vanity with clown double-takes and bug-eyed guffaws. Zeta-Jones is less assured; her cool perfection never shifts, even when she's supposed to be melting at the prospect of true love.
When Miles asks, over dinner: "I assume you're a carnivore?" She responds: "You have no idea, Mr. Massey." It's a line that should be delivered with a punch -- Clooney looks like he's been knocked out -- but Zeta-Jones holds back; she's a little sleepy for the part.
Of course, the real comedy is in the margins. A very Coen death scene, involving an asthma inhaler, is as imaginative and shocking as anything in Blood Simple.
Geoffrey Rush, playing a nightmarish boomer television producer -- Jaguar-driving, ponytail-wearing and Simon and Garfunkel-listening -- steals the opening scene with glee. Cedric the Entertainer, as a bombastic private investigator, doesn't bother being ironic, he's just funny instead.
But if Intolerable Cruelty never quite solidifies into a Coen gem, it may be because it's not really a Coen brothers movie. Two other screenwriters penned the original script, with the Coens kicking in their contribution later. This may account for the feeling that a much plainer movie -- a familiar black comedy about avarice -- has merely been stamped with cool. The result is hardly intolerable, but it isn't the film to prove that the brothers are still the smartest kids in the room.