Intolerable Cruelty
Director: Joel Coen. Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Duffy, Richard Jenkins, Jonathan Hadary, Irwin Keyes, Tom Aldredge, Stacey Travis, Jack Kyle. Screenplay: Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Joel & Ethan Coen (based on a story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano).

A Coen Brothers movie called Intolerable Cruelty is sort of like an Eric Rohmer movie called Idle Chat, or a Woody Allen picture called Diminishing Returns. The title isn’t just a joke, it’s an ironic self-description of the cheekiest sort, playing right into the hands of what detractors like least about these filmmakers. The pinned-down formalism of a typical Coen Brothers shot—a static suspension all the more enervating because a Coen World is one we usually want to see more of—is often read as rigid, patronizing, dehumanizing. The Coens’ elaborate, sometimes overwhelming scale of production design and their proclivity toward baroquely mannered characters and actors are often cited as further evidence that they hate the people in their movies (or at least love to mock them), and so perhaps, by extension, they hate their audience (or at least love to mock us). Owen Gleiberman’s vitriolic put-down of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which he pegged as the worst film of 2000, provides a condensed if notably emphatic idea of what the anti-Coen faction resents about their work.

I like the Coens, even though I’ll admit that I’m increasingly unsure what to make of their movies. It’s this not being sure, and not ultimately caring, that has started to seem like the solicited response. While director/co-writer Joel and producer/co-writer Ethan have long been darlings of auteurist critics, as denoted by their track record at Cannes, they have by now taken auteurism to Warholian levels of subversive extremity. In other words, the Coens are so well-known as auteurs that it hardly matters if we can’t quite tell anymore what they are auteurs of. The tone and technique of their projects—fostered not just by the brothers but by cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, costume designer Mary Zophres, and other recurring collaborators—have become so distinctive and so widely heralded that they are virtually ends in themselves, not just shaping or trademarking the stories but essentially replacing them. What is there to say about the rambling dropout picaresque of The Big Lebowski, with its roving nihilists, its entropic pseudo-story, its horn-helmeted goddesses of the Temple of Ten-Pin? How can we possibly gauge what’s at stake in O Brother’s fusion of the Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, the bluegrass hoedown, the Klan rally, the Depression fable, and the Farrelly Brothers? The Man Who Wasn’t There, to me the most satisfying entry in the Coens’ post-Fargo log (i.e., in their renewed career as critical favorites and popularly recognizable names) spins a sharp, sad, eccentric little story about profit schemes and post-Sartrean alienation in Truman’s America . . . but then the piano gourmands, the resurrected wives, and the UFOs start showing up.

It’s silly to say that the works don’t have meaning. Part of what’s fun about the Coens is how their heavily formalist sensibility yields unpredictable and nearly indescribable scenic effects: comic, ironic, emotional. They’ve plunged so far into their experiments with framing and sound that they almost don’t need narrative, and they seem increasingly unnostalgic for the kind of structure that classical narrative confers. “Story” survives in their movies as an odd, tumbleweedy thing that connects unlikely people to improbable objects within unpredictable, sometimes inscrutable scenarios. A major but surprising boon of this approach is that the Coens, of all people, are articulating a new, weird version of cinematic realism. The objects in these films, shot and framed like entomologist’s specimens, absorbed into the narrative for circumstantial or curio value more than structural or symbolic meaning, rarely seem metaphorical of anything. A ferret is a ferret, a hair-cream jar is a hair-cream jar, a frog is a person. Even a burning Klan cross is uncomfortably dismantled as an icon and re-imaged as what it is: a tall physical structure of blazing wood. (Having endeavored, in Fargo, to infuse their work with oblique but profound ethical resonance, the Coens can’t, for better or worse, be said to have attempted the same trick since.) All this amounts to one of the most intriguing recent histories for any American film artists.

So now what have the Coens gone and done? They have cast their lot with surfer-boy producer Brian Grazer, rescripted a screen story by three other guys, and filmed a story that’s as narrative as it gets. Causes and effects, stroke and counterstroke, assault and revenge. Not that Intolerable Cruelty buckles too easily under conservative screenwriting edicts: few romantic comedies, even of this bitter-pill variety, would begin with a tertiary character named Donovan Donaly getting stabbed in the ass with a Daytime Emmy after catching his wife in bed with the pool man. This kind of situational lunacy is spread around the picture: contract kills are hastily renegotiated in medias res; pre-nuptial agreements are publicly swallowed, with barbecue sauce, by magnanimous Texan grooms; rich Hollywood boobs pass an evening jumping up and down on their beds with a warren of Playboy bunnies. Honey-glazed hambone actors like Geoffrey Rush, Edward Herrmann, Julia Duffy, and Billy Bob Thornton keep the dial turned up to 11.

Surprisingly, though, at least for a Coen Brothers project, the movie never becomes about all this craziness. In a film like Barton Fink or The Big Lebowski, oddball adventures like these constantly pull the story in strange new directions from which it elects never to return. By contrast, Intolerable Cruelty indulges them only as brief, mood-setting detours from what is clearly a narrower, predominating pas de deux between Miles Massey (George Clooney), an idiotic divorce lawyer who is nonetheless a trailblazer in his field, and Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a gold-digger who makes a career out of marital opportunism after Miles’ courtroom brio sends her packing, penniless, from Marriage #1.

The structure of the film soon hardens into a boilerplate shape, notwithstanding certain details of image or character that jut out at odd angles. Over the course of the film, Miles vaporizes Marilyn’s romantic reputation until she cunningly wins it back; Miles falls in love with Marilyn, an affection which she first returns by marrying someone else (and given Marilyn’s usual agendas, that is an act of kindness); Miles gets Marilyn to marry him, but then that gets complicated; and it all ends up about how you’d expect. The spoofy view of divorce as just another California industry has a distinctly contemporary ring. The film further situates itself in the modern moment with some quippy citations of recent auteurist cinema: the pool-man scene strongly recalls the similar vignette in Mulholland Drive, and Zeta-Jones reprises Julia Roberts’ red-dress glide into a casino lobby from Ocean’s Eleven (to say nothing of the Coens’ self-referential casting of Clooney, Thornton, et al.). And yet, genre junkies that they are, the Coens are never far from the studio tradition, and it behooves one to remember how many screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s played out a logic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage (The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story leap to mind).

So why is it that Intolerable Cruelty, which faithfully follows a generations-old template, and achieves a reasonable level of comic glee while doing so, still feels like the most disposable of their films? Why does it feel so markedly unilluminating as either a genre commentary or a contemporary lark? It’s not an unenjoyable picture, though too little is done with by far its most ingratiating performer, Cedric the Entertainer, who mints new laughs every time he repeats his name or his favorite catchphrase, “Nail his ass.” It seems too easy to say that Intolerable Cruelty fails to satisfy simply because it breaks from typical Coen patterns. The fact that the glossy, studio-guided tone and story takes us off guard is itself perfectly in keeping with the Coens’ tradition of continually surprising us, nor is this the first of their films to play coy about whether it’s sincere or satiric, covertly academic or just plain fun. Besides, there are certain aspects of the Coens’ usual approach that I’m happy enough to do without. Even a modest and seemingly impersonal work like this one is, for me, more fun to sit through than the sui generis but wildly uneven comic stylings of Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy. It is not clear that Intolerable Cruelty would have improved or impressed with more of the spiraling, unboundaried zaniness of these pictures. I certainly challenge the imputation in some film criticism that narrative is inherently softer or more pedestrian than its various formalist or “experimental” alternatives.

This narrative template, though, and this team of filmmakers seem as ill-joined as any couple Miles Massey ever divided. What’s notably missing is a constant formal irony that gives the other films whatever shapes they do have—the general ironic principle, in fact, that makes such differently-shaped films traceable to a single creative team. Within almost any shot or scene of another Coen picture, there is a frisky, puzzling tension between the arbitrary or off-center content and the hyperformalized technique. The question is almost one of kitsch. We might ask ourselves, responding to any number of unexpected shots or outré sequences, “Who on earth would want to work that hard to film that?”—but the complex angles and subtle mise-en-scčne leave no doubt that the image-makers have worked deliberately and ingeniously, for whatever unfathomable reason, to produce that enigmatic that. A similar tension links the sequences together, however loosely: the formal exertions are so uniformly maintained that we never stop doubting the movie is up to something, we’re just kept wondering what it is. It is as if the movies’ job is to yield a stream of interrelated images that constantly suggest a larger “meaning” while secretly, strenuously preventing such meaning, avoiding any metaphoric or climactic structure that will turn these people or objects into anything other than their own take-them-for-what-they-are uniqueness. The specific red herrings in a given film—who is the “big” Lebowski? Is O Brother the Odyssey, or isn’t it?—are just tangible manifestations of this whole guiding spirit, baiting us with symbolism or conventional ideas of structure until we don’t want them anymore and gladly accept the world (and the movie) on its own terms. This is why, to me, the Coens’ ostensible misanthropy is actually a kind of closeted compassion.

Intolerable Cruelty is filmed with the same technical signatures—canted angles, overhead shots, foreshortened perspectives—but they don’t engage our curiosity in the same way because we’re never at a loss to explain anything. The airtight logic of the romantic-comic plot, following all the customary reversals and reactions, propels the movie all by itself; plot and character so fully dictate our impressions that we don’t need to explore the images, and there is nothing personal or subjective about how a given viewer connects the sequences together. Style is no longer the core of the movie; it feels instead like a massively gratuitous embellishment, a veneer of glossy Coenishness that helps to trademark (“…and to sell!” said Mr. Grazer) an undistinguished comic script that, for all its twisty double-crosses, isn’t terribly involving. Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers picture that’s asking a single question throughout its duration—will Miles and Marilyn wind up together? In my experience, pictures like Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Fargo ask us much more than that; The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy almost ask less, at which point the films’ elaborate commitment to their own non-issues itself emerges as a question. Intolerable Cruelty, meanwhile, just sits there. We couldn’t possibly care what happens to Miles or to Marilyn, much less together, and neither Clooney’s nor Zeta-Jones’ performance stretches far enough beyond their glamorous surfaces and the immediate contexts of their scenes to provide any further clues, or curiosities. We never wonder what Miles or Marilyn are doing when we aren’t looking at them; when we do see what they’re doing, we often wonder why they are bothering.

The luscious colors and witty vantages of Deakins’ images, then, or the arrhythmic editing of “Roderick Jaynes” (the Coens’ longstanding pseudonym) become just as cosmetic as Clooney’s suave smile, and delivering a promise just as false as the expectations first created and then disappointed by the director’s credit. There are lots of signs that we should be enjoying this movie, and there’s plenty on the surface that we can and do enjoy. Still, the ruthless connections of the marriage/remarriage plot are totally opposed by the arbitrary link of story to image. Only plot points unite the scenes; formally and emotionally, the movie never accumulates, and it even seems to erase its own tracks as it goes. Love them or hate them, you can rarely accuse Joel and Ethan Coen of self-erasure, but I was astounded by how little of this movie I remembered almost the minute it concluded. Based on its title, Intolerable Cruelty sounds like a movie the Coens would make; based on everything else about it, it feels like a movie that they didn’t—and, diverting as it is, the film isn’t successful enough to warrant such a departure. Grade: C+

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