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Faster than a Speeding Screwball
Clooney and the Choens find big laughs in marital misery

- October 16, 2003

* Intolerable Cruelty
Directed by Joel Cohen. Screenwriters: Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (based on a story by John Romano, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone). Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Jenkins, Jonathan Hadary, Geoffrey Rush, Julia Duffy, Tom Aldredge and Irwin Keyes. (PG-13)

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Feature
Intolerable Cruelty: A veritable Top Ten list of why this man remains unmarried.
My friend Helder Mira and I recently did a public access cable show extolling the virtues of Preston Sturges, '40s master of screwball comedy. "There's no one making movies today who even comes close," I asserted then. Surely I was experiencing a momentary amnesiac fugue state, for I was forgetting the Coen brothers. What's screwier, in contemporary cinema, than Raising Arizona ? And though the Coens' idiosyncratic resume defies convenient categorization, there are key screwball elements in Fargo , The Big Lebowski , The Hudsucker Proxy and even O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Intolerable Cruelty finds Joel and Ethan Coen working, for the first time, from story material by other writers (Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano), given a final polish by the Coens. Does this in any way diminish or detract from the finished product? Hell, no. This may be the funniest movie you'll see until the next time the Coens get behind the camera.

George Clooney (whose allegiances with the Coens and Steven Soderbergh, now his production partner, mark him as the canniest actor in Hollywood) is Miles Massey, the most celebrated divorce lawyer in L.A. He's consulted by philandering husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann, perfectly insipid) about whatever options might be open in a bitter breakup which includes incriminating videotape of a drunken Rex in the sack with a blonde bimbo. "How much can my wife take me for?" he asks. "How much would you like her to get?" Miles probes. An impish twinkle enters Rex's eye. "Well ... nothing. Is that possible?" Suddenly we see attorney Massey energized and focused by the apparently insurmountable obstacle before him. If his client would like his aggrieved and entirely innocent spouse to receive nothing whatsoever -- well, that's a challenge he can't refuse.

Cruelty becomes a teasing tango between Clooney's Miles and Catherine Zeta-Jones' Marylin Rexroth. He proclaims, shortly after meeting her, "You fascinate me!" In her avaricious outlook, she's as much of a predator as Miles. And when she's dealt a losing hand, she stops at nothing to reverse the decision.

It's easy to imagine a black-and-white version of this script starring, say, William Powell and Carole Lombard. Some concessions to the censorship of the era would have to be made, but most of the sexual tension would survive gloriously intact. There's much in this movie that smacks of the sensibility peculiar to the Coens' universe, including Tom Aldredge as old man Myerson, the nonagenarian patriarch of Miles' law firm, hooked up to machines, with a stack of Living Without Intestines magazines in his waiting room. Then there's Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), a hit man whose trademark is his asthma inhaler, which becomes the setup for the biggest (and sickest) laugh of the entire film.

There's nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers like the Coens (or Richard Linklater, whose School of Rock remains a steady favorite) opting to tilt a wee bit closer to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, it's a challenge; can these guys have a hit without sacrificing what makes them unique? They've done it before with Fargo .

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