In the heyday of the studio system in the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood staples included the romantic screwball comedy, a genre that featured attractive stars dancing around their obvious physical attraction to the beat of snappy dialogue and twisty plots that surprised us along the way to the required big-smooch end. Outstanding examples include Frank Capra's It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and Hawks' Bringing Up Baby with Grant and Katharine Hepburn. In the 1970s Peter Bogdanovich showed in What's Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal that the genre could be made to work outside the studio system. But the hipper, more ironic and often coarser style of comedy that has dominated the past three decades has made screwball comedy harder to do. Still, that's what Joel and Ethan Coen attempt in their current Intolerable Cruelty. They certainly got appropriate stars and a situation that should have worked. But the script the Coen Brothers rewrote from an earlier draft by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone fails to hold together.
The acceptably unlikely narrative in Intolerable Cruelty concerns a wildly successful but jaded and bored divorce attorney named Miles Massey (George Clooney), who becomes intrigued with gorgeous gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) after he successfully denies her so much as a bus token in her ugly settlement trial with her philandering husband Rex (Edward Hermann). Miles' victory in the Rexroth case is all the more remarkable since Marilyn has video footage of Rex and a scantily clad bimbo preparing to play the beast with two backs in a sleazy motel. Miles is relentless, but he meets his match in Marilyn.
Among Miles' accomplishments is the Massey Pre-Nup, a marital contract that protects the wealthier spouse's assets in such iron-clad language that it's never been broken and is taught at Harvard Law School. So why does Marilyn want Miles to prepare his pre-nup for her to sign before she marries her next husband, doofus oil man Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton doing his hick schtick to the max)? Because she wants to show Howard how much she loves him.
Here is where the picture begins to go seriously awry. For we see immediately what Marilyn is up to. And thus we sit in impatience through the next half hour as the plot plays out its painfully obvious moves. Miles is supposed to be brilliant, but he doesn't see what we do. And though the picture might want to account for his blindness as the result of his increasing infatuation with Marilyn, the script doesn't provide the details to justify it. Sure Marilyn is drop-dead beautiful, sultry, curvy and cool. And yes, she has a way of swinging her hips when she walks away that makes most grown men swoon. But she's depicted as having a heart made out of granite, and she never gives Miles so much as a wink of encouragement. When he impulsively kisses her after the pre-nup meeting before her marriage to Howard, she responds with all the warmth of a statue and then warns him that "I could have you disbarred for that."
In short, the romantic component of the old formula doesn't work here. Miles doesn't fall for Marilyn because she isn't remotely lovable; she's a challenge he wants to meet, a mountain he wants to climb. She's as heartless as he's always been, so he wants to possess her, for the thrill of the conquest only. Other filmmakers would have suggested a hidden sweetness behind Marilyn's ferocious mask, but the Coens don't. Others would have provided an acceptable rationale for Marilyn's determination to achieve independent wealth, but the Coens refuse. And as a result, we soon find ourselves with no interest in Miles' romantic objective. These aren't the star-crossed lovers we root toward their inevitable embrace. These are two selfish jerks about whom we care less and less as the movie progresses.
So the plot twists don't surprise us, and the romance doesn't touch us. And the picture doesn't make us laugh, either. The Coens have proven that they can write hilarious dialogue for lovably quirky characters in movies as different as Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. But here the picture resorts to the hoariest of low-comedy confections. Characters stalk around backwards, bump into each other in the dark, spray each other with dog repellant and conk their noggins by running blindly into walls. The film even stoops to the desperate plea for laughs where two frightened characters look at each other and scream. I will concede that near its painfully stupid end, Intolerable Cruelty does deliver one unexpected and huge belly laugh. But even that doesn't arise from the film's core characters and situation. And it's far too little entertainment for the price of admission. Here's hoping that the next Coen project is a return to form.
- Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has Miles Massey (George Clooney) all flummoxed in the Coen brothers' latest, Intolerable Cruelty.