Nigh Intolerable

The cruelty of the Coen brothers

It may all come down to how you feel about this one scene, where the gasping, asthmatic hit man known as Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) mistakes his handgun for his inhaler and . . . well, you get the idea. If you find that moment riotous—perhaps even the comic highlight of this, the latest film from the brothers Coen (Joel and Ethan co-write; Joel directs)—you're likely to have enjoyed the 90 antic minutes that precede it. If, on the other hand, you find Wheezy Joe's accidental head trip to be more hateful than hilarious, the apex not of this movie's good cheer but of its overall smug, unfunny design, then you may find Intolerable Cruelty itself to be, well, nearly intolerable.

You'd also find yourself—as I find myself—in the minority. Even before opening commercially, Intolerable Cruelty is already a popular attraction, with very positive advance word having reached these shores last month, following the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Add to that the enthusiastic response at the recent Westwood screening I attended, and it becomes clear that this gravy train is only beginning to blow smoke—Intolerable Cruelty plays just as big when it isn't subtitled into Italian. Which I suppose means that broad public favor has tilted back the Coens' way, following the rarefied (and commercially disappointing) noir-isms of The Man Who Wasn't There. And who's to argue? This movie is, as the Coens' almost always are, undeniably glossy and smart, with lots of snappy, thesaurus-intensive wordplay between its stars: George Clooney (as the unflappable Beverly Hills divorce attorney Miles Massey) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as the slippery seductress Marylin Rexroth). There are colorful supporting roles, too, for the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer and Geoffrey Rush, and there is lots of lush upholstery, courtesy of production designer Leslie McDonald, for them all to sink into. It is, in short, a movie that goes down so easy, that bulldozes you so effectively, it's easy to see why most—even those who consider themselves Coen skeptics—may be dissuaded from the niggling concern that the filmmakers' attitudes are more than a bit reprehensible.

Intolerable Cruelty is about what happens when philandering real estate mogul Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) gets caught on video in a very compromising position by "ass-nailing" private detective Gus Petch (Cedric) and subsequently finds himself on the receiving end of Marylin's high-stakes divorce suit. Enter Massey, all pearly whites and cock-of-the-walk strut, with a bloodhound's nose for hot-to-trot gold diggers and a patented prenuptial agreement that has become the industry standard. If anyone can find the cracks in Marylin's victimized (albeit handsomely sculpted and tanned) façade and prove that she's merely feigning her distress, it'll be him. And that he does, discovering in one puffy-lipped, purple-shirted Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary) the hidden ace who can attest to Marylin's calculating ways.

And that's not the half, or even the quarter, of it. Intolerable Cruelty began life as a screenplay that the Coens were asked merely to rewrite, and a big part of the problem with what has emerged is that the movie not only is, but feels like, the competing interests of half a dozen (if you include heavy-hitting producer Brian Grazer) different creators. So, long before we even get to the Rexroths, there's a lengthy subplot—indeed, one that might well have made for its own movie—about another Massey case, that of the beleaguered television producer (Rush) who discovers his wife home alone with the pool cleaner (and they don't even have a swimming pool). Then, after Massey has successfully defended the Rexroth fortune, there is another husband (Thornton, as a Texas oil baron) for Marylin, and another divorce—a cycle that threatens to continue until finally, inevitably, Miles falls for her himself. After which, there are the requisite double- and triple-crosses as Miles comes to realize that in Marylin he has met his worthiest-ever opponent, if not his match. (And I haven't even begun to explain how Wheezy Joe fits into the scheme of things.)

Yet, amid this mayhem, the Coens fail to give us a compelling reason why, if at all, we should invest ourselves in how things pan out—whether Marylin dupes Massey or vice versa, or if, perchance, they end up living happily ever after. Is the point of the movie the sentimental notion that these two despicable opportunists will transform each other into better people, or the more cynical one that, in each other, they get what they deserve? The Coens and their many co-writers either haven't bothered to figure that out, or they don't care to tell us. And while Clooney and Zeta-Jones sound like perfect casting, onscreen together they fail to spark in the way we expect. He, for the first time in his recent run of good parts, seems to have let the Cary Grant comparisons go to his head, resulting in a lazy, shticky performance that's far from his suave best. She, despite having proved her femme-fatale chops in Chicago (where she was one of the few things genuinely worth watching), simply isn't around enough (and hasn't been given enough to do, beyond strutting her very ample stuff) in order for her Marylin to fully engage Miles, or us. Though, admittedly, where Zeta-Jones is concerned—her flawless skin and curvaceous body in tighter harmony than those of perhaps any other woman on the planet—viewers should feel fortunate for every glimpse they can get.

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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