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Love between predators
(Filed: 24/10/2003)

Even the dream pairing of Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney fails to energise the Coen brothers' slick romantic comedy, writes Sukhdev Sandhu

Intolerable Cruelty
Waiting for Happiness

Forced to bet on which Paul Simon song it is that we're most likely to hear at the start of Intolerable Cruelty, the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie, I would have laid a pretty shilling or two on Still Crazy After All These Years. What could be more apt? For the best part of two decades the Coen brothers have been bringing out one nutty, off-kilter film after another. In their best work, such as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, they take the crooked timber of Hollywood's humanity and from it fashion films that are as sharp and subtle as a splinter.

Intolerable Cruelty
Intolerable Cruelty: a darn shame

Actually, the Paul Simon song in question turns out to be The Boxer. It's the first but by no means last time that we get the feeling that this is a Coen brothers movie like no other. For one thing, neither the storyline nor the screenplay is their own work: John Ramano is responsible for the former, and Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone for the latter.

Gone are such delightful character actors as Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi. Gone the rambling, shaggy-dog plots involving an endless caravan of oddballs, misfits and losers. This, it turns out, is the Coens planed and varnished. Why? To ask them to make a film as tidy and conformist as this is akin to hiring a contract killer but supplying him with bullets made of marshmallow.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a vain LA divorce lawyer with a track record for winning seemingly impossible alimony cases. He massages the kinks in his clients' testimonies, thinks of life as a sport in which the goal is to destroy one's opponent, and cites Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as his management gurus of choice.

Massey is getting rather bored by his corporate superiority. He craves a challenge. And soon he finds one in the form of glossy-haired, gold-digging femme fatale Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She's the ex-wife of one of his former clients, a man who escapes scot-free despite being caught with his pants down as he gets on down with his bimbo mistress. Massey trumps her in court, but soon desires to tup her, too. "I could have you disbarred for that," says Marylin when he kisses her. "It was worth it," he says. "You fascinate me."

And so the merry dance begins. Massey tries to woo Marylin, even though she has already contrived to get hitched to an apparently gullible Southern millionaire (Billy Bob Thornton). Eventually, Massey succeeds and marries her at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas at a ceremony officiated by a grousy old Scottish guy. He even addresses a conference hall of fellow divorce lawyers to tell them that their inability to talk about love damns them professionally, and that he intends to devote himself to pro bono work.

The shift from screwball satire to romantic comedy doesn't work at all. The characters in this film aren't real people; they're Hollywood types, vectors of energy, who may bounce and spin and ricochet off each other, but can never truly interact or evolve. That's less of a problem during a first half the very theme of which is the friction between individuals. But it mars the second half because we are never persuaded that Massey and Marylin would want, yet alone be able, to melt into each other's arms.

Zeta-Jones looks as lovely as a ripe nectarine, but has been afforded none of the barbed repartee gifted to Claudette Colbert or Veronica Lake, heroines of those Preston Sturges comedies that this film tries to evoke. There's little heat between her and Clooney, who, like Kevin Spacey, finds it hard these days to conceal a tiny smirk whenever he appears on screen. He seems almost to be watching us watching him. "Am I not oblique?" he seems to be asking us. The answer is no, not if you have to ask the question.

The skimpy characterisation disappoints less than the ragged editing that means that the great Geoffrey Rush's turn as a cuckolded daytime presenter is underdeveloped.

The dialogue is not as idiosyncratic or memorable as, say, The Big Lebowski. Catchphrases, namely the cry, "I'm gonna nail yo' ass" plus a few riffs on "sitting ducks", have to take up the slack. And slack is the word that best describes the whole venture. This is a watered-down, badly-Xeroxed, sorry excuse for a Coen brothers' film that offers precious few clues to the distinctive visions that animated their earlier work. It's a darn shame.

Waiting for Happiness, the second feature made by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, has no wisecracking stars, but it's an intensely gentle film, elliptical and muted, that perches in your imagination in a rather unsettling fashion.

It is set in a small town on the coast of Mauritania, where 17-year-old Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed) comes to stay with his mother while he is waiting or a passage to Europe. He wears sneakers and smokes cigarettes. For reasons left unexplained, he can't speak the local language of Hassianya. He is forced to look at people and places around him carefully, and so are we.

Sandstorms whip up frequently. A young Asian man sings karaoke love songs to his black girlfriend. The body of a drowned man - also trying to get to Europe? - is found on the beach. A young orphan called Khatra (Khatra Ould Abdel Kader), who has been apprenticed to the cheerless older electrician Maata, runs about singing songs on rooftops and trying to work out why one particular bulb refuses to light up. All around, under the pale blue skies, there are fragile melodies being incanted by mothers to their shy daughters.

Waiting for Happiness hints at lots of stories, both personal and collective, but the characters, with the exception of Khatra, remain taciturn and remote. Life in this village seems overshadowed by the invisible presence of Elsewhere.

Young people like Abdallah - and Khara, who tries to smuggle himself into a departing train - are suspended between the struggles of daily life in the town and the freedoms they hope to find in the Northern hemisphere. Sissako evokes successfully this mood of toil, tension, nostalgia, unrequited longing. Hopefully, his next film will find a better means of dramatising it.

11 October 2003: Zeta-Jones and her crazy, fabulous year
4 September 2003: Sexual chemistry lesson [Intolerable Cruelty]
8 March 2003: The morals of King George
13 October 2001: Cutting edge Coens [interview with the Coen brothers]

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Intolerable Cruelty