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Love American-Style

The Coen brothers' take on romantic comedy.

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Let me begin this review by acknowledging that I'm on the record as generally loathing the Coen brothers' movies, and I have the hate mail to prove it. It doesn't surprise me that criticizing the Coens draws an extremely personal brand of ire from their fans, whereas taking any other comparable filmmakers to task seems to provoke a more reasonable response. It has always seemed to me that the core of the Coen cult is that they pander to their audience at the expense of everyone on screen.

That said, I can honestly say that I had high hopes for Intolerable Cruelty, or hopes anyway. This screwball farce about a divorce lawyer and the gold-digger he defeats in court (in which the battle of the sexes is perpetual war and attorneys are merely combat strategists) seemed like it could be the movie in which the Coens' cynicism and misanthropy finally found a worthy vehicle. And, to a degree, it is.

The Coens, like so many American filmmakers of their generation, both good and bad, make movies about other movies rather than about actual life. At their worst (The Hudsucker Proxy), they can seem to be mocking their source material. But Intolerable Cruelty doesn't feel that way. Instead it comes across as an honest attempt to make a modern equivalent of the classic Hollywood battle-of-the-sexes farces that clearly inspire it, great films like The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Adam's Rib, and The Lady Eve. They even rein in their frequently overpowering style, making a movie more in line with the reserved genre machinations of Blood Simple or Fargo than with the Mad magazine/Looney Tunes aesthetic of Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

But the inevitable disappointment is that, rather than a hoped-for success, Intolerable Cruelty is just a different kind of failure. It is simply less a failure than other Coen movies: There's both less to get mad about and less to hold one's attention. It's a movie that's flatter than it should be, which is sad, because it has so much going for it.

For starters, the movie couldn't have been better cast. There is probably no other contemporary actor better equipped for this role than George Clooney, who plays successful divorce lawyer Miles Massey. You can keep Method men like De Niro, Pacino, and Hoffman; for those of us who worship at the altar of Cary Grant, Clooney's anachronistic star turn here is a pure delight, sinking his pearly whites into the role with the kind of zealous overcommitment that Grant brought to so many classic screwball comedies. Clooney deploys a full arsenal here -- mugging, swooning, gleaming, and plotting his way through one of the most purely entertaining performances the big screen will see all year.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is also perfect in the Barbara Stanwyck role: professional gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth, a ravishing ice queen who gradually melts (and if you think that's a spoiler, you've never seen a screwball comedy).

Miles and Marilyn are entirely unscrupulous in Intolerable Cruelty, a trait that actually seems to provoke some affection from the Coens. They are vultures who admire each other's skill and technique at exploiting human longing in return for financial gain. Miles is disappointed in Marilyn only when it appears that she's actually marrying for love, but his ardor and appreciation swell -- and, as an extension of Clooney's bravura commitment to these shenanigans, so will yours -- when her duplicity is revealed.

Clooney and Zeta-Jones ace the sexually charged repartee that fuels these kinds of films (Clooney is a true master at this -- see him with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight or Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven), but the Coens don't give us enough of it and don't have the sense to stand back and let their actors work when they are together. The few moments of verbal confrontation between the two -- over dinner, on the witness stand, a zingy first kiss in an office hallway -- are the film's best moments.

Intolerable Cruelty has a nice, twisty farce premise and also nails another trait of the genre with its bevy of entertaining, outsized supporting characters, the kind that Preston Sturges used to fill the frame in films like The Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story. There's Billy Bob Thornton as an Aggie oil tycoon, Cedric the Entertainer as an opportunistic private eye, beloved TV actress Julia Duffy as another professional divorcÇe, and Edward Herrmann (Hearst in The Cat's Meow) as Marilyn's sad, silly, first marital target. There's also a recurring bit with a prop -- the "Massey prenup" -- that evokes the saga of the "intercostal clavicle" in Bringing Up Baby.

But, despite having so much going for it, Intolerable Cruelty is a far duller and more stilted film than it should be, possibly the result of the Coens spending so many years intent on being superior to their material that they can't quite bring themselves to give in to it.

It's no accident that the greatest screwball comedies were made under the "invisible" editing and clean, unobtrusive visual style of directors like Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor. That unshowy visual mix of steady close-ups and medium shots lets the focus remain squarely on the actors and dialogue, which is where all the magic from this kind of movie derives. But the Coens aren't so willing to let the viewer forget who's in charge. As a result, I left Intolerable Cruelty feeling cheated and wishing I had seen the same cast and same concept in the hands of a filmmaker with a less cluttered style and better timing; someone with an actual interest in human interaction and from whom the inevitable happy-ever-after wouldn't ring so hollow. -- Chris Herrington

herrington@memphisflyer.com

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