“Intolerable Cruelty” isn’t what the title threatens, but it certainly affords much less pleasure than you might expect, given it’s a Coen brothers movie. It’s a half-homage to, half-spoof of Hollywood screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, centering on the alternately tense and snug relationship between the world’s greatest divorce lawyer, Miles Massey (George Clooney)–formulator of the unbreakable Massey Pre-Nup–and Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the astronomically beautiful gold-digger whose plans to soak her rich but unfaithful husband Rex (Edward Herrmann) he derails. But while beating her in court, Miles is entranced by her, and when she remarries, this time a goofy Texas oilman named Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), the union merely escalates his interest. A series of twists and reverses follow as the pair spar with one another, test each other’s capacity for trust and work to outwit one another on the way to a predictable denouement. The scenario is not unlike something that Howard Hawks might have directed six decades ago, and since the Coens have shown themselves extraordinarily adept in transforming genre material into something special by applying their own peculiar quirkiness in past projects, one had high hopes that they’d do so again here.
Unfortunately, the hope isn’t realized in this instance. To be sure, the picture has plenty of the brothers’ loopy humor and strange, dark touches, but all too often the effect seems forced and contrived in a way that hasn’t been the case in their earlier pictures, however outrageous the action and stylized the approach might have been. The problem may be that “Intolerable Cruelty” originated as a script by others–Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, who were previously responsible for such clunkers as “Big Trouble,” “Life” and “Destiny Turns on the Radio.” Presumably the Coens liked the premise and decided to mold it into a piece in line with their own distinctive outlook. But the graft hasn’t fully succeeded; the outcome remains a quite conventional comedy gussied up with Coenesque touches. The film is actually less amusing overall than a similarly-themed picture, 2001’s “Heartbreakers,” which was much more clumsily made but considerably funnier because it was played straighter. Though the plot was no less artificial than that of “Intolerable Cruelty,” it worked better because it was less ostentatiously arch; curiously, the Coens’ finagling with things might have weakened the material rather than improved it. Their previous effort at remaking a Hollywood formula in their unique fashion, “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), was much more successful because, whatever its faults, it at least seemed all of a piece.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the new picture is entirely without laughs. There are ten or twelve lines sprinkled throughout the hundred minutes of “Intolerable Cruelty” that are really hilarious, and there’s a hysterical sight-gag toward the close, involving a character called Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), that ranks with the best grimly funny bits of business the brothers have ever pulled off, which is saying a lot. But most of the movie just tries too hard to be off-the-wall, and the same can be said of Clooney, who’s much less effective here than he was in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He’s probably the closest thing we have nowadays to a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, the guys who graced so many of the best old screwball comedies, but his broad, manic, almost charmless performance in this instance is reminiscent of the worst those guys ever had to offer–Grant’s monumentally frantic turn in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” for example. By contrast Zeta-Jones isn’t asked to do much beyond look svelte, well coiffed and beautifully dressed. She manages this admirably, but never makes her character much more than a mannequin. And the supporting players, usually so rich a bunch in a Coen brothers picture, don’t take wing here, despite their often strenuous efforts. Paul Adelstein is little more than a whiny nebbish as Massey’s chief assistant. Herrmann and Geoffrey Rush overplay even worse than Clooney as two cuckolded husbands, and Jonathan Hadary, as a florid concierge, and Tom Aldredge, as Massey’s cadaverous boss (a typically macabre Coen brothers creation, but one that comes across as more unpleasant than funny) outdo them. Even Cedric the Entertainer, whose rude gregariousness has delighted elsewhere, is shrilly one-note as a P.I. The only person who rises above the norm is Richard Jenkins, playing one of Massey’s flustered rivals in the courtroom. His mild-mannered, befuddled turn is a restful alternative to the frenetic goings-on around him.
As usual with Coen projects, “Intolerable Cruelty” looks quite luscious, with fine work by production designer Leslie McDonald and cinematographer Roger Deakins. But despite obvious efforts (the interior of Aldredge’s office, for instance), it never manages one of those great, unforgettable visual moments the brothers have elsewhere been so adept in achieving (e.g., the famous snow-covered parking lot in “Fargo”). And Carter Burwell, ordinarily so reliable, contributes an overly insistent score–in line with the aggressiveness of the whole picture.
Perhaps I’m judging “Intolerable Cruelty” by excessively high standards, but they’re the ones that the Coens have set for themselves. In their case “moderately enjoyable,” which is the best one can muster of this film, translates as “disappointing.” Let’s hope the brothers write their next picture from scratch themselves.