Friday, April 25, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Directed by:  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen and Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano.
Starring: George Clooney (Miles), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marylin), Geoffrey Rush (Donovan Donaly), Cedric the Entertainer (Gus Petch), Edward Herrmann (Rex Rexroth), Paul Adelstein (Wrigley), Richard Jenkins (Freddy Bender), Billy Bob Thornton (Howard D. Doyle), Julia Duffy (Sarah Sorkin), Jonathan Hadary (Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy), Tom Aldredge  (Herb Myerson), Stacey Travis (Bonnie Donaly), Jack Kyle (Ollie Olerud), Irwin Keyes (Wheezy Joe).

Alongside the film the Coen brothers made right after this one (The Ladykillers), Intolerable Cruelty is the only film of the brothers I had only seen once before sitting down to this retrospective of their work. The film doesn’t enjoy a very good reputation alongside most of the Brothers work – and there is a reason for that. This is a film that they reworked another pair of writers screenplay for in the mid-1990s and never planned to direct. When another project fell through, they decide to direct this one if for no other reason than because they could. Intolerable Cruelty was an attempt by the brothers to make a more mainstream comedy while still infusing their own unique brand of strangeness of the proceedings. They were partially successful on all fronts. When you compare Intolerable Cruelty to most of the rest of the Coen filmography, there is no doubt that this is a minor effort – a trifle that the brothers tossed off with ease. When compared to most mainstream comedies, Intolerable Cruelty however is a delight. It’s been a decade since I saw the film and I was surprised by what a good time I had watching it. It’s no Fargo – hell, it’s no The Hudsucker Proxy – but not every film has to be.

The film is clearly an homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s. In it, George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a successful divorce attorney, famous for the Massey Prenuptial Agreement that is unbreakable. He not only wins his cases, he decimates the other side. He’s happily single and successful and quite simply doesn’t care about anything other than winning. Then he meet’s Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She’s the soon to be ex-wife of his wealthy client, Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), and a gold digger who was just waiting to catch her husband fooling around so she could divorce him and make off with his money. She doesn’t count on Miles however – who is able to thoroughly destroy her in court, but not before falling for her himself. He thinks the feeling is mutual – especially when she shows up in his office a few weeks later. But she’s not there for that – she’s there because she already has her claws in another rich man – Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton – saying much more in his short performance here than in all of The Man Who Wasn’t There – if you don’t count the narration). She wants to prove it’s all for love, and therefore wants the Massey Prenup. He’s devastated – he thought they really could have something. But with Marilyn, you can never be sure what’s really up her sleeve.

The movie survives – hell thrives – on the palpable sexual chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones. From the moment they lock eyes on each other, the heat between them – the sheer physical attraction – can be sensed by everyone in the audience. This is Clooney and Zeta-Jones at their movie star level best, delivering seemingly effortless comic performances and playing brilliantly off each other. Had the Coens spent more time on the screenplay, Intolerable Cruelty may well have been a brilliant screwball comedy – Clooney and Zeta-Jones are certainly game and capable of pulling it off.

Unfortunately though everything other than Clooney and Zeta-Jones are nowhere close to their level – with the exception of Thornton’s few brief scenes – he’s brilliant as a Southern fried dimwit – and a few moments with a character named Wheezy Joe that is. Everyone else in the cast is stuck with horribly underwritten roles – and no matter how talented the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Cederic the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins or the rest of the cast is, they cannot cover up that basic fact. The movie also, cruelly, forces Clooney and Zeta-Jones apart far too often – we want them together, because when they’re together the movie is wonderful.

Even the visual look is not quite up to snuff with the rest of the Coen’s films. They add some nice touches to be sure, but it’s one of the only films in their filmography that at times feels more like someone trying to be the Coen brothers than the Coen brothers themselves. It’s hard to pick on the visual look of the film – it is polished and professional all the way through – but the Coens can usually be counted on for far more.

Intolerable Cruelty is far from a bad movie – whatever its reputation would suggest. I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed myself watching the film this time through. But again it still has to rank as a disappointment given the usual level of the brothers work and the undeniable fact that this movie does not reach that level. On many – in fact most – directors resume, Intolerable Cruelty would not stand out as a weak film. But on the Coens resume, no matter how much I like the film, it is undeniably one of the weaker efforts.

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