As usual, the Coen Brothers are so damn clever. The gang's all here, from composer Carter Burwell to cinematographer Roger Deakins to fictional editor Roderick Jaynes (a pseudonym for the writer-director team that is the Coens). Favored actors Billy Bob Thornton and leading man George Clooney return, as does cameo day-player/good-luck charm Bruce Campbell. But in much the same way as they did with the Clooney starrer O Brother, Where Art Thou, Joel and Ethan get off the good foot again with Intolerable Cruelty. O Brother, Where Art Thou could claim significant compensations for its flatfooted folk dance, rich music and innovative photography among them. Intolerable Cruelty, for all its embedded scholarship and flashes of screwball humor, enlightens and charms more in theory than in practice.
The first moments of Intolerable Cruelty announce all that is right and wrong with the film. Cleverly, the Coens--uncharacteristically rewriting a script by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone--depict a pigtailed Hollywood producer (Geoffrey Rush) driving through Beverly Hills and clumsily singing along with Simon and Garfunkel. The song is "The Boxer," and the subtext of the duelling couple who recorded the song (coincidentally reconciled for money this year on a national tour) signifies the theme of acrimonious battles over love, money, and ego. Unfortunately, the ensuing scene--purposefully cliched though it may be--embodies the film's failure: Rush's cuckold arrives home to engage in a broadly played and unfunny battle with his wife and her pool-man paramour.
After a credit sequence set to Elvis's "Suspicious Minds," Clooney comes into focus as a screen-filling pair of teeth. Though he turns out to be all bark and no bite, Clooney's infamous divorce lawyer Miles Massey fixates on his pearly whites, peeling back his gums to preen or flash what he hopes is a disarming smile. Massey's the type of lawyer whose giant desk is always clutterless and whose suitcase sets down with a telltale echo; a luminary of litigious legerdemain, he makes off with the law by the skin of his teeth, improvising his way to victory.
His match is his latest mark, the presumably wronged wife of a cheating client. Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones)--a non-lethal black widow--resolves to love and leave men for sport and profit. Preferring the company of actual dogs (vicious Rottweilers and poodles alike) to the two-legged variety, Marylin plays coy with the increasingly smitten Miles until the two are romantically, and hopelessly, entangled. Their maneuverings bring to mind two films of Zeta-Jones's real life hubby. Brutal salvos recall Danny De Vito's more assured The War of the Roses, while Miles's "Love is good" speech--a spontaneous corrective to a roomful of corrupted divorce attorneys--plays like a starry-eyed reversal of Michael Douglas's "Greed is good" monologue from Wall Street.
The Coens manage a (precious) few big comedic pay-offs, one an extended courtroom sequence beginning with a double-talk dialogue worthy of Abbott and Costello and culminating in a coup de grace Miles aims at Marylin, another a brilliantly executed bit of visual humor involving an inhaler. The combined talents of production designer Leslie McDonald, art director Tony Fanning, and set decorator Nancy Haigh tend to upstage the actors, with settings like an absurdly large nouveau courtroom or a diamond-patterned Caesar's Palace elevator (and, hey, is that a mannequin of Katherine Hepburn as a queen of Scots?).
Caesar's Palace and Miles's favored diner Nero's--among other tyrannical allusions--punch up the theme of conquest. It's at Caesar's Palace that N.O.M.A.N. (the National Organization of Marital Attorneys, Worldwide) convenes, under the banner "let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder." When Miles asks Marylin if she's ever reached "a point where you've achieved your goals and you're still not satisfied," their mutual attraction is finally evident, if only on the page (after Miles's goofy reference to sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the Coens not-so-casually plant a book on Everest on Marylin's bedside table). The logical conclusion of a lonely life of conquest appears in the form of ancient law-firm patriarch Herb Myerson (Tom Aldredge), a screeching scarecrow behind an oak desk who subscribes to Living Without Intestines magazine.
While it's true that Intolerable Cruelty superficially recalls the humorously biting social critiques of Sturges and Wilder, the Coens more often miscalculate and overplay what should seem effortless. Clooney and Zeta-Jones's cold-shower chemistry douses the spark from which screwball comedies ignite, and most of the comedic situations strain seriously for effect in "We're dancing as fast as we can" fashion. Clooney's vigorous mugging--complete with facial contortions and double-take posturing--is sort of entertaining, but gives off a whiff of flop sweat. By the third-act complications, the leads are irreparably unlikeable, making the finale a floor-gone conclusion. Miles poses the question "cynicism or love?" and the Coens play the servants of both masters; the result is a fatal, if messily amusing, clash of styles.