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Intolerable Cruelty

dir: Joel Coen
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From a creative team as potent and as previously successful as it generally has been over the last fifteen or so years, it has to be said that this film ends up being something of a disappointment. Especially for fans of the Brothers Coen, who have been gifted with so many good to great films thus far that the opening of their every film is greeted with an almost sexual level of anticipation.

Trying to replicate the kinds of screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s that we never knew we missed that much, the Brothers again make a film about, amongst other things, Hollywood films. They’ve covered most of the cinematic genres, from Capraesque lunacy in The Hudsucker Proxy, Prohibition era gangster morality in Millers Crossing, Busby Berkeley musicals in The Big Lebowski (amongst plenty of other nutty ingredients), so now it’s time to lift some style and elements from the films of Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story). These comedies, some of which are classics, are pretty cheesy to modern eyes, not helped by the regular presence of Eddie Bracken, who was a poor man’s Mickey Rooney if I ever saw one, and Joel McCrae, who was a destitute man’s Gary Cooper. And lucky us, we now have the rich man’s Cary Grant headlining here.

The Coen films have always been films about American film itself, and they’re damn good at it. Generally. Other times they seem to be coasting in a way that makes you almost weep with frustration. As in this instance.

With a comparatively huge budget (for them), most of which probably went on the salaries of Catherine Zeta Jones and George “Shucks” Clooney they deliver a film that is mildly amusing at best, and downright forgettable at worst. There were maybe three or four chuckles in this film, which is okay for any other film, but not for a Coen Brothers comedy. Clooney, bless his little heart hams his way through the entire film with passion and verve, and Zeta Jones manages to look all gorgeous and icy, but doesn’t really do much. She doesn’t dazzle the audience, and for a film like this she has to be equal parts formidable sparring partner and femme fatale to be relevant. When that doesn’t happen she ends up just being the female object of desire, which any number of desperate reality television contestants could have done at a fraction of the cost.

It’s impossible to care about the characters or the story. I’m happy to appreciate a well made film that has all the consistency of a souffle or the solidity of carnival fairy floss, but it had better be damn entertaining if that’s going to be the case. Neither, sadly apply in this instance. Both characters are undermined by feeling somewhat superfluous to the progress of their own story, and the script makes a critical mistake (in my anything but humble opinion) at the three quarter mark of the film which kills whatever feeling you might have hypothetically had for the characters.

The battlefield that this war between the genders is waged upon is that of the divorce court, the matrimonial marketplace, the world of the haute bourgeoisie where marrying well isn’t as important as getting everything in the divorce. As with many of Sturges’ films, the characters here all have intensely ludicrous names (Sturges character name examples: John D Hackensacker, Trudy Kockenlocker, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, Harold Diddlebock). Our main character, Miles Massey is the best divorce lawyer money can buy. We see this early on at a trial in which Massey gets a devastating settlement against a guy, Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush, when he is the one that caught his wife in flagrante delicto, so to speak (he caught her fucking the pool guy for the less literate of you).

Next up he defends a guy called Rex Rexroth against his wife Marilyn (played by Zeta Jones) in the divorce proceedings and wins, again despite the fact that Rex is the one caught fucking around. He is even photographed by a detective, Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer) about to go ‘on the job’ so to speak. Cedric’s character shows a disturbing anal fixation by continually, I mean in every single sentence of dialogue that he has, making reference to nailing ‘asses’.

Marilyn is destitute, but has caught the eye of Massey who rapidly becomes fixated upon her, and begins to repent his callous, mercenary ways. To go further would spoil the meagre plot details that this dubious entry in the Brothers oeuvre possesses. Suffice to say there is little to keep one’s attention, and little sticks in the memory afterwards. The few moments of wit or charm are rapidly swamped with lacklustre banality and a chilly level of energy between our leads. They have only a few scenes together where they sparkle momentarily, but the dialogue is nowhere near as witty as it thinks it is. In fact there is a dearth of good lines in a genre that used to overflow with them.

It’s undeniable that Catherine Zeta Jones is a very gorgeous woman, but I have yet to see her give a passable performance in anything that I can think of, with the exception of the “Drugs are Bad, Mmkay?” after-school special Traffic. In this instance I don’t blame her, I blame the Brothers and the ordinary script, which is so slight that I can’t believe they couldn’t see how trite it was as they were making it. Clooney does his usual best, as he usually does for the Coens, and owns the entire film, outside of its modest quirks. He mugs the camera plenty, yet without him the film would have little to hand your intellectual coat on.

Yet all the same the story saddles him with inane moments that drag down the enjoyment level for the viewer. In a moment that seems more reminiscent of Jerry Maguire than of anything from the 1940s comedies it purports to be a pastiche of, Massey gives the keynote address at a convention of matrimonial attorneys in Las Vegas, the capital of sensible wedding decisions. Instead of waxing lyrical about the virtues of screwing people over and abusing the courts for personal gain and profit, he finds himself inspired enough by a woman he barely knows to proclaim his deep love of the matrimonial vows that the rest of them cruelly help to sever, and his new found respect for the straitjacketed institution of marriage. As he leaves the convention, someone starts a slow clap which eventually results in tumultuous applause. It’s a moment intended as parody which ends up looking more hokey that the moments from other flicks that it is parodying.

The situation created by the hiring of a certain character to whack someone towards the end of the movie renders any and all points in the film moot and pointless. The film thus ceases to be about humour, love, divorce or marriage, and is revealed for what it is: the producer’s deep wish that “Hey, people will watch it anyway because George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones are in it. Money in the bank, you peasant audiences and stupid elitist critics!”

Well, not my money you shmucks, I didn’t pay to see it and I surely am not going to add it to my collection of Coen Brothers DVDs.

Where was a Walter Sobchak continually rambling on about Vietnam, purple clad, hair-netted pervert Jesus Quintana licking his bowling ball, crime boss Leo killing some rival underlings to the tune of ‘Oh Danny Boy’, Nicholas Cage being beaten half to death by the Biker of the Apocalypse trying to steal a stolen baby, a KKK rally that turns into a creepy song and dance routine, an obese Nazi running (very slowly) down a burning hallway screaming “I’ll show you the Life of the Mind”, a man bleeding to death who manages to crawl out of his own shallow grave…

The list goes on and on for the great moments in cinema these guys have been responsible for. Therefore the high level of anticipation and expectation for their future releases is understandable, although it only seems to be paying off sporadically recently. I haven’t liked either of their two recent films: The Man Who Wasn’t There, which abused noir voiceover narration to the point of distraction, and this one, but I hold out hope that they’ll dazzle me again in years to come. Their next film to be released is The Ladykillers. Even if it’s only half as good as the Ealing Studios original it should be entertaining. Let’s hope so. With people as creative and talented as these guys, you have to expect that they can deliver the goods again, to satisfy that craving deep down in those unscratchable places we all have.

5 times the Coen brothers will need to justify my love again out of 10

"Miles Massey: So you propose, that in spite of demonstrable infidelity on your part, your unoffending wife should be tossed out on her ear.
Rex: Is it possible?
Miles Massey: It's a challenge." - Intolerable Cruelty