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Splitting headaches

The Coen brothers' story of gold-digging and divorce is a witty - yet flawed - war of wiles. John Patterson looks at the US movies

Monday October 13, 2003
The Guardian

Intolerable Cruelty is, if we plan to be reductive, the Coen brothers' Howard Hawks movie, just as The Hudsucker Proxy was their Frank Capra rags-to-riches-and-back saga, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? was their Preston Sturges madcap romp. All the Hawksian tropes are evident from the start. Up front is George Clooney as the dashing but devious divorce lawyer Miles Massey, pure 1950s Cary Grant redux from his ash-coloured hair to his exquisite Roger O Thornhill tailoring. Ranged against him is a perfectly formed Hawksian female antagonist, Catherine Zeta-Jones's serial divorcee Marilyn Rexroth, a gold-digger with beauty, brains and a frustratingly hard-to-find soft spot somewhere around the heart. Driven by equal parts lust, greed and oneupmanship, they embody the Hawksian view of the sexual comedy as a good-natured, gamely fought war of wiles.

Just as Hudsucker and O Brother suffered from too intimate an identification with the directors that inspired them, so too does Intolerable Cruelty. Which is not to say that the Coens aren't up to the job of imitating the inimitable: far from it. That this is their most visually restrained movie so far echoes Hawks's fondness for a static, shoulder-level camera and uncoercive editing. The dialogue fizzes with arch wit and sexual-financial-Darwinist treble entendres ("I hope you're a carnivore, Mrs Rexroth." "Oh, Mr Massey, you have no idea.") And the lower reaches of the cast are rich with sharply drawn cameos and aptly cast character actors in the Hawks manner, even if some of their names - Rex Rexroth (Ed Herrmann), Freddy Bender (Richard Jenkins) and "Howard Doyle of Doyle Oil" (Billy Bob Thornton) - emit the giddy whiff of Paramount-era Sturges.

Miles and Marilyn circle each other like panthers from the moment they meet at a divorce negotiation, at which Miles represents Marilyn's philandering husband. Miles doesn't lose cases, even if there is clear and irrefutable videotaped evidence of husband in hotel room with hooker, as there is in this instance. Even when he falls dementedly in love with Marilyn, he doesn't scruple to divest her of everything she has. He figures he will pick her up on the rebound and frogmarch her up the aisle.

Of course, Miles hasn't counted on how cunning his quarry is. After letting him work up a crippling hunger for her ample ripeness, she shows up with Thornton's ridiculous Texan oilman and asks Miles to draw up his famously inviolable pre-nuptial agreement. Miles's jealousy soars and the games begin.

On the one hand, Intolerable Cruelty is the funniest, wittiest movie around now. On the other, it's pretty second-rate Coen brothers, not fit to wash The Big Lebowski's car, mow The Man Who Wasn't There's lawn or shovel the snow out of Fargo's driveway. Perhaps the problem has to do with the rupturing of the Coens' hitherto intact hermetic seal. Intolerable Cruelty is the first project they didn't originate themselves. They have rewritten a script developed by others and the movie's most Coenesque qualities feel overlaid on a framework considerably less sturdy, weird and perverse than one they might have cooked up in their fraternal hothouse. It might be said that this is a shrewd move after The Man Who Wasn't There, arguably their most inward-looking, ecstatically stylised work. For me, though, whatever has broken the seal has also curdled the contents, giving Intolerable Cruelty a rote, predictable feel.

Wonderland, a skilful re-creation of the infamous four-on-the-floor murders in LA's Laurel Canyon in 1981, proves that writer-director James Cox has quite a future. This immensely complicated and sleazy story unravels with important events related differently by various participants. Val Kilmer gives an impressively broken-down performance as Holmes, a pathetically coked-out loser living on the residue of his infamy and manipulative charm, cadging his highs by pimping his 15-year-old girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) to dealers. The rest of the cast is impressive, too, from Dylan McDermott, unrecognisable as a speedfreak biker, to Lisa Kudrow as Holmes's estranged wife Sharon.

Sadly, the movie lacks a clarifying context. No one has a history - even Holmes, who has already fallen from grace and can sink no deeper - and the script's overly forensic explication of a complex case saps its narrative energy almost from the start. Let's hope next time Cox directs, it's with a leaner script; then he really could live up to that promise.

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