The Coen brothers, generally with Joel as director and Ethan producing, have turned out an interesting collection of films that aim to be entertaining, but not the sort of airhead entertainment which Hollywood grinds out like so much tasteless sausage to feed the paying audiences. The Coens consistently have built their films around pointed, usually satirical observations of the foibles of modern society. The comedies have touched on parents desperate to have a child in Raising Arizona to capitalism in action in The Hudsucker Proxy to the American South in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. They’ve played with genre in the films noir Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There and the gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing. Then there are some films that are Coen brothers hybrids, comedies with a powerfully dark side that are in a class of their own–like the brilliant Fargo and the very bleak Barton Fink.
It’s an impressive body of work which raises expectations for each new Coen brothers film that comes along, expectations sadly dashed with their current entry, Intolerable Cruelty. The central target is divorce, particularly divorce in Los Angeles, where, according to this scenario, beautiful women scheme to marry wealthy men in order later to divorce them for major financial gain. Using slick divorce lawyers (a cottage industry in L.A.), they take the suckers for all they can get, providing the woman with security and luxury and, it seems of necessity, a show dog (or a hunky gardner, or both) for companionship. If the husbands are doomed to ruin–well, they’re no more than spoiled philanderers anyway.
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, Traffic) plays Marilyn Rexroth, a very cagey woman playing the gold digging game. When her private eye catches her husband, Rex, in flagrante delicto, she sues for divorce. He hires Miles Massey (George Clooney) to represent him. Massey is an acknowledged champion in the profession, as smooth as an oiled anaconda and as vain as the proverbial peacock. He’s powerfully attracted to Marilyn, but she quickly remarries–this time to a motor-mouthed Texas millionaire, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton in the funniest portrayal in the movie). What develops between Marilyn and Miles is firmly in the screwball comedy tradition.
The subject matter is ripe for satire, perhaps too much so. Sitting ducks aren’t especially challenging targets, and while the Coens demonstrate a thoroughly convincing knowledge of slimy lawyers, pre-nuptial agreements, and the lifestyles of the rich and botoxed, Intolerable Cruelty is sadly short on wit. When a comedy depends on a variety of dogs to hold audience interest you know it’s in trouble; the Coens use Rotweillers, a huge poodle, and a pink-bowed, fluffy white Pomeranian to fill their gaps in inspiration. When they repeat ancillary jokes ad infinitum (Massey’s obsession with his white teeth), the movie’s fun is draining away. And when the audience laughs hardest at scenes based on stereotypes (a very fey, gay German concierge; a wheezing 87 year old lawyer living with a colostomy), the movie reeks with the stale sweat of desperate writers.
Intolerable Cruelty will probably make millions, especially with the box office drawing power of its two stars. Perhaps the Coen brothers needed a commercial box office smash to sustain their ability to fund more worthy future projects; that’s about all that would justify this digression from their normal quality levels.