Nigh Intolerable

The cruelty of the Coen brothers

In the end, Intolerable Cruelty comes off as yet another Coen brothers parade of grotesqueries without context—one in which we're expected to laugh at the misfortunes of those deemed fit for ridicule by the filmmakers, because of either disability (Wheezy Joe), funny accent (the Baron) or the fact that they're filthy stinking rich (Massey, Marylin, et al.). Which is, to this viewer's eyes, the Coens' eternal fallback position—the kind of movie (like two of their most popular productions, Raising Arizona and Fargo) they make at their least inspired, whenever they turn the eccentricity amplifier up to 11 and seem unable to muster the odd, disconcerting empathy for their dimwitted and/or loathsome characters that graces their best work. But so goes the perpetual debate about the Coens: Are they the heirs (along with, perhaps, Alexander Payne) to the subversive screwball stylings of Wilder, Sturges, et al.? Or are they merely haughty film-school whiz kids eager to wring a cheap laugh out of those they consider beneath them on life's food chain?

The answer is: a little bit of both, and it depends on which movie you're talking about. Clearly, the Coens are disposed toward material that teeters on the precipice between shrewd satire and a misanthropic abyss, and likewise, as filmmakers, occupy (with neighbors Sam Raimi and Tim Burton) a tentative position halfway between cult success and mainstream bankability. So is it any wonder that even their most ardent fans can't seem to agree upon which Coen brothers movies are actually the best? Some seem to share in the Coens' unattractive desire to lift themselves up above their fellow men. But the Coens have themselves, in the past, shown surprising, unexpected warmth, most notably in the hick-Homer O Brother, Where Art Thou? I would propose that the brothers are most compelling and indispensable when they turn their eagle eye for human absurdity on themselves and make a dark, disconsolate, grimly funny picture to satisfy their own comparatively human-scale perversities and self-loathings—pictures on the order of Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There or Barton Fink. Intolerable Cruelty, on the other hand, seems the kind of movie that results from two essentially erudite, anarchic talents playing down to the masses.

Intolerable Cruelty was directed by Joel Coen; screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen, Robert Ramsey, and Matthew Stone, from a story by Ramsey, Stone and John Romano; produced by Ethan Coen and Brian Grazer; and stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Now playing countywide.

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