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Comedy simple: Coens find a new genre

Friday, October 10, 2003

BY STEPHEN WHITTY
Star-Ledger Staff

The Coen brothers never met a genre they didn't like.

They did noir three different ways, in "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing" and "The Man Who Wasn't There." They did straight drama in "Barton Fink" (even if it ended up being surreal). They did true-crime drama in "Fargo" (even if it turned out not to be true). They even put a big musical number in "The Big Lebowski."

So it's a little bit of a surprise to realize that the genre they've really been working in all along is screwball comedy.

Yet, even when the films have had a high body count, the Coens' characters have always been clowns and the mood has almost always been farcical. Think of Frances McDormand with the body that wouldn't stay dead in the brothers' very first film, "Blood Simple." Think of Nic Cage with his clumsy convenience-store robberies in "Raising Arizona."

There's a cool cynicism to those movies, an almost existential sense of pointless fate. Yet there's also a slapstick humor and a dizzying verbal dexterity; trim some of the misanthropy and recast McDormand with Barbara Stanwyck or Cage with Eddie Bracken and you have a Preston Sturges comedy.

"Intolerable Cruelty," the Coens' latest movie, is an actual unabashed screwball farce, their first since 1993's overly contrived "Hudsucker Proxy." George Clooney -- groomed to within an inch of Cary Grant -- is Miles, a matrimonial lawyer. Catherine Zeta-Jones, all pampered pussycat smiles, is Marylin, a serial divorcée.

Can it be long before they meet in court? Can it be much longer before they begin to court?

No, it can't, and that predictability is a bit of a letdown -- for once, we almost know where the Coens are going. (Perhaps because, although they typically shared in the directing and editing, for once they're not the sole authors; the original story and first drafts of the script were done by other screenwriters).

Have the Coens gone commercial? It's not an idle worry. Late in the film, for example, Clooney gives a big sentimental speech -- accompanied by stirring music -- to a crowd of divorce lawyers. It's the sort of scene the brothers would have ridiculed once. Here, they play it straight and even have the lawyers applaud him heartily at the end.

Yet, if this studio project has softened the Coens a bit, they've also added their own edge. It's not likely you'll see many other comedies in which the biggest laugh comes courtesy of an asthmatic hitman called Wheezy Joe. And it's a sure bet you won't see any other Hollywood romances in which romance itself is so ridiculed. In the Coens' universe, true love is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

All their actors enjoy hiding behind it here. Clooney overplays the comedy just a touch -- he's Grant in "Arsenic and Old Lace" when he needs to be Grant in "The Awful Truth" -- but it's still a fine, funny turn. As for Zeta-Jones, she's so absolutely perfect as a conniving golddigger, Michael Douglas may even lose a few nights' sleep.

As always in a Coen brothers film -- as it was in Sturges' -- it's the supporting cast that shines brightest. Edward Herrmann gets a very funny part as a train-happy millionaire; Cedric the Entertainer pulls the movie in another direction as a streety private detective. And as Clooney's worshipful, weepy best friend, Paul Adelstein nearly steals the movie.

Like this week's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," there is some sense of filmmakers playing things a little safely -- and playing to their own weaknesses. If Tarantino's flaw has always been indulging his inner film geek, the Coens' failing has always been a certain detachment. They tend to treat their characters with a certain condescension, and "Intolerable Cruelty" allows them to look down from even loftier, chillier heights.

It's amusing, of course; laughing at other people's vanities and pretensions always is. Laughing at our own, however, can be provocative and even profound -- and that's something the too-cool Coens aren't willing to risk. But that's okay for now. Real laughter of any kind is still welcome -- and "Intolerable Cruelty" provides some of the loudest of the year.

Rating note: The film contains sexual situations, strong language and comic violence.

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