FILM OF THE WEEK
Intolerable Cruelty (12A) ****
Directed by: Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney; Catherine Zeta-Jones
It is traditional, when considering the films of the Coen brothers, to remark on their versatility, and their ability to pastiche and corrupt genres, while also remaining true to their chosen form. There is some truth in this notion, but, as a means of understanding their output, it is increasingly unhelpful.
The Coens’ films - of which Joel is the listed director, and Ethan a screenwriter - are more easily seen as reflections of a cinematic imagination. They have an old-fashioned belief in the importance of character, and a playful interest in storytelling, and both qualities are rendered with an imagination informed by B-movies and pulp fiction. Their work is not just an academic trawl through genre: from thriller to police procedural to - ahem - bowling opera and depression-era Homeric chain gang comedy.
This does not make them realists, and Intolerable Cruelty takes their work to a new level of whimsy. That it succeeds is largely due to the performance of George Clooney, a leading man who now has the confidence to mock the notion of leading men.
Clooney is Miles Massey, a grinning laywer who specialises in expensive divorces, but who is also in the midst of a mid-life crisis which he is reluctant to acknowledge. He defines life as "struggle and challenge and the destruction of your opponent" and considers marriage to be a concept in which obsolescence is inbuilt: "Time marches on. Ardor cools."
He is also a workaholic. In his first scene, he is at the dentist, talking turkey through a rubber gum dam, and there are several scenes in which he checks the brilliance of his smile. Clooney seems to be wearing prosthetic teeth for the part, which is a comic parody of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, and even includes a keynote speech spoofing Gekko’s "greed is good" mantra, in which Massey asserts that "love is good". (The speech is to the National Organisation of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide, whose slogan is "let NOMAN put asunder".)
There is, then, a degree of ironic pleasure to be taken from the fact that the love interest is supplied by Catherine Zeta-Jones, wife of Michael Douglas, who played Gekko.
While Douglas gave a performance full of such oily intensity that it was hard to locate the irony, Clooney does something better, playing an insincere, unprincipled fool, who remains breezily likeable. On ER, Clooney didn’t act so much as mug intensely. His repertoire was a smoulder, a shrug, and a curious neck-crick to signal emotional discomfiture. Now, he has perfected the chemistry in which the swagger, the voice, and the Brylcreem combine to make a winning parody of a hero. He has a nice way of narrowing his eyes. He cleans his teeth squeakily with his finger. His timing is spot-on: see the scene where he encounters a breathless assassin, and asks: "Are you ... Wheezy Joe?" (The pause being filled by the assassin’s laboured attempts to commune with his lungs).
As the moneygrubbing vamp, Marylin Rexroth, Zeta-Jones is a cosmetic success. Normally an offensive screen presence, she manages here to evince a dreamy flirtatiousness, without quite becoming a Dynasty villainess. She smoulders well, which is enough, as smouldering is her main purpose.
Another actor on the verge of self-parody, Billy Bob Thornton, does well as the idiot oilman, Howard D Doyle of Doyle Oil, who is tricked into marrying Marylin. Geoffrey Rush, as cuckolded TV producer Donovan Donaly, is less endearing, though there is a moment of satisfaction when he is attacked with his daytime television lifetime achievement award. The most subtle performance comes from Miles’s sidekick Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), while Jonathan Hadary is winningly overstated as Heinz, the Baron Kraus von Espy, a fop with a fluffy dog.
At the start of their career, the Coens had trouble bringing warmth to their films. Intolerable Cruelty finds them at their most accessible, but, as a love story which celebrates divorce, it is not without its subtleties. It is also a film of great, inexplicable scenes - Clooney in a kilt; a psychotic waitress taking umbrage at an order for baby fried greens - and witty detail (note Clooney’s face as he peruses a copy of Living Without Intestines magazine).
As befits a film in which one of the biggest laughs comes from a guitar-playing minister, offscreen, singing the opening line of Simon and Garfunkel’s Punky’s Dilemma, the tone is more oddball than screwball, with the comedy coming from a place slightly to the right of left field. "Wish I was a Kellogg’s Cornflake," the minister sings, "Floatin’ in my bowl takin’ movies."
He talks, I think, for the Coen brothers. He may even be sincere.