Intolerable Cruelty is about two sharks falling for each other, but not after shedding some blood first. This is fine screwball material for Joel and Ethan Coen, who dusted off a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone and ran with it. The result isn’t as organic a Coen film as their others, but it earns its place in their portfolio as a comic essay on the follies of love, trust, and the illusion of control.
Don’t make too much of the fact that the material didn’t originate with the Coens (it never stopped anyone from liking any of their other movies that owed their structures to Hammett, Chandler, Homer, etc.), or that Brian Grazer produced it (Joel Silver bankrolled The Hudsucker Proxy — what’s your point?). This isn’t a whole lot like any previous Coen film, but none of their previous films are much like each other, either. When approaching a new Coen effort, it’s wise to leave your expectations at the door. This is the Coens dabbling in the mainstream, and bending it to their will.
Teaming for the second time with the Coens, George Clooney enters the picture teeth-first — literally. As Miles Massey, an egotistical divorce lawyer who prides himself on winning big settlements for irredeemable clients, Clooney gives full rein to the old-school suavity that links him to the movie stars of an earlier age. Yet Miles is essentially a fool, with a nagging fear that there must be more to life than obscene wealth. Perhaps love is what’s missing — but Miles sees the wreckage of love every day; not only that, he profits handsomely from it. He can’t see himself with a trophy wife, or with a sweet, trusting woman with a fraction of his smarts. So when he meets professional divorcée Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he’s undone. Marylin is in the process of extricating herself from an idiotic real-estate tycoon (Edward Herrmann, having fun being randy); she looks forward to the “independence and freedom” that her ex’s wealth will bring her. We sense that it’s not just about freedom for her, though; it’s more about the thrill of the hunt. Zeta-Jones, as usual, slinks into each scene with the confidence of a woman who knows she can make men sit up and beg.
The Coens don’t sully Marylin’s glamour — they need it to keep the machine rolling. Miles is infatuated with her as a package — beauty plus a diabolical sense of male weakness. He’s been looking for a challenge, and she’s it. They both know all the tricks, and the Coens’ unequalled skill with dialogue comes out in the verbal sparring between the two. At heart, this is a classic Coen film, obsessed with crime — the glee of getting away with something. By the time attempted murder enters the plot, we recognize that it’s the logical extension of the characters’ ruthlessness. These are not nice people, though they’re softened by a sort of wistful awareness that kindness might exist out there, somewhere.
With the possible exception of Paul Adelstein as Wrigley, Miles’ mushy-hearted assistant (who bawls at weddings), everyone in the movie is circling the drain of ambition. We meet Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), whose specialty is catching wandering spouses in flagrante delicto on his camcorder; and Geoffrey Rush in a farcical turn as a TV producer with brass taste; and Julia Duffy as Marylin’s mummified divorcée friend, with a 46-room mansion and a bleeding ulcer; and especially Billy Bob Thornton enjoying himself to the hilt as a naïve oil billionaire who becomes the next patsy on Marylin’s list. These actors perform in shorthand, functioning as satellites on the margins of the divorce universe, where Miles and Marylin are god and goddess. Eventually, the Coens break away from the swank atmosphere and give us such oddities as a quickie Scottish wedding performed in kilts and a hit man named Wheezy Joe. I wonder if what bothers some Coen fans about Intolerable Cruelty is that, unlike most of their films (which either stay lowlife or mix lowlife and the elite), it stays pretty much elite for most of the movie, and the main characters are comfortable there.
Miles, for one, is getting uncomfortable there, and he has a change of heart, though the Coens have the wit to satirize it as the smitten grandstanding it is. Soon enough, Miles is back in the moral grime, and the plot twists and double-crosses come fast and heavy. Much of Intolerable Cruelty will reward multiple viewings; lately, the Coens haven’t been making movies that even their longtime fans will instantly embrace — not everyone dug O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for instance, or The Man Who Wasn’t There. Never let it be said that the Coens are content to rest on their laurels, or averse to risk. At its core, Intolerable Cruelty is an anti-romantic comedy, in which, even if the leads wind up together, we’re not sure they’re meant for each other, even if they do deserve each other.