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Intolerable Cruelty

By Sandra Hall
October 25, 2003

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Hollywood wife . . . Catherine Zeta-Jones as the carnivorous Marilyn.

Intolerable Cruelty
Directed by Joel Coen
Rated M

The spirit of Hollywood's great satirist Preston Sturges looks down on the Coen brothers' screwball comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, doing it a power of good. There's nothing new about Sturges's influence on the Coens' films. Nor is there anything new about their fascination with screwball. They first tried it - disastrously - in 1994 with The Hudsucker Proxy, memorable mostly for the twang and whine of Jennifer Jason Leigh's vocal cords as she laboured over her lines in a doomed attempt to do a Katharine Hepburn. With Hudsucker, the Coens were trying to have it all, tossing in borrowings from screwball's trinity - Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks - in the hope of massaging the result into magic. Instead, they ended up seeming like tourists who'd blundered into this soignee corner of old Hollywood without first mastering the vernacular.

They returned to the Sturges style more successfully with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its nods and winks at Sullivan's Travels. Perhaps this was because they'd realised that Sturges's stance - somewhere between worldliness and being right off the planet - was close to their own. By then, they also had George Clooney. As Cary Grant sexily demonstrated, there's something very appealing about a good-looking man who knows how to send himself up and with the Coens' encouragement, gorgeous George is proving to be quite a sport.

It was Clooney's interest in Intolerable Cruelty that clinched the Coens' decision to do it. They may also have been after a change of rhythm - something lighter and springier after their excruciatingly deliberate slow-mo film noir, The Man Who Wasn't There. Or maybe they just wanted to make a picture with glamorous people wearing good clothes - an urge they admit to experiencing from time to time. Whatever the reason, they've turned contemporary Los Angeles into a crisp, shiny, immaculately presented world.

It's a story about divorce, with Clooney as Miles Massey, a celebrity divorce lawyer, whom we first meet at the dentist having his smile polished. Miles is so good at his job that he has a pre-nuptial agreement named after him - the impregnable "Massey pre-nup". And he's so bored that he takes only the tough stuff, which, in his business, means those cases which least deserve him. A preliminary bout has him savaging Geoffrey Rush, as a producer whose wife has betrayed him with the swimming pool maintenance man. He's the injured party - something that matters little during the orchestrated mayhem of a Coen brothers courtroom.

But Miles's next case introduces him to Catherine Zeta-Jones's Marylin, an audacious fortune hunter in the unflappable tradition of Sturges's The Lady Eve, and suddenly he isn't bored any more. Their first date is in his office, where he arouses her interest by trying, on behalf of her ex-husband, to argue her out of her divorce settlement. Then comes dinner, where they engage over the menu. "I assume you're a carnivore," he says, to which she replies, "Oh,

Mr Massey, you have no idea." And so the games begin.

The funniest thing about Clooney's performance is Miles's delight in the discovery that he can still be surprised. Unlike Cary Grant, whose sexiness was bound up in his wariness towards women, Clooney is ready for anything - glib enough to extract himself from almost any fix and reckless enough to relish the faint prospect of failure. Even so, he can whip himself up into a fine lather of hysteria, just as Grant could in his most comically exasperated moments. And Zeta-Jones is the perfect foil for him. The more overwrought he becomes, the louder she purrs.

The Coens surround these two with an expansive array of supporting players, all equipped with the flair to elevate every bit part and walk-on into a full-blown - or rather, air-headed - cameo. Billy Bob Thornton shows up as one of Marylin's husbands, a Texan billionaire of some eccentricity - although his quirks come nowhere near to competing with those of her ex (Edward Herrmann), whose idea of erotic bliss is to invite a few blondes around for the evening and have them join him in playing with his model train set. The black comic, Cedric the Entertainer, is cast as Miles's pet private eye, Gus Petch, who gets such a huge charge of bursting in on adulterous couples with his video camera that a client eventually chides him for his lack of tact. At this, he is mightily offended and snaps back, "You want tact. You call a tactician."

And that's it for the morality of the situation, which again is in line with Sturges's take on the world. The pace, too, owes a lot to him, its giddiness borne of a well-placed confidence in the thought that the script's sharpest lines can only be improved by being thrown away. Pastiche is a high-risk business. You can make big mistakes when you draw your ideas from movies, rather than life, and the Coens have produced their share. But this time, having found in Sturges a sensibility which chimes with their own, they've got a winner.

In the land of screwball, they're tourists no more.


Gettin' Square: Jonathan Teplitzky's Gold Coast gangster comedy breaks the drought and reminds us that Australian filmmakers can be funny, after all. Chris Nyst's knowing script is well served by a great cast which includes David Wenham delivering the comic performance of the year.

Calendar Girls: Starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, the story offers flesh-and-blood proof that the middle-aged female body does have box-office potential when it's paraded with as much panache as it is here.

Swimming Pool : Francois Ozon's thriller has Charlotte Rampling as an English mystery writer and Ludivine Sagnier as her publisher's uninhibited teenage daughter. What absorbs Ozon is

the exchange of energy that takes place between these two extreme female stereotypes.

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