As they made clear with “The Hudsucker Proxy,” Joel and Ethan Coen have a thing for the stylish, rapid-fire screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. As reflected by the film’s reception, it’s fair to say the rest of the planet was cautious not to encourage that particular enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the fraternal filmmakers have returned to the genre with their enthusiasm undiminished. It’s doubtful the same will prove true for the audience’s.
George Clooney gamely tries to enliven a thinly written affair by delivering a variously suave and antic performance in the role of a legendary divorce attorney. He’s wealthy, handsome, universally feared and bored silly. Caught in the grip of a poorly defined crisis (it’s unclear whether it is existential, professional or merely midlife in nature), he sleepwalks through his days deviously guarding the fortunes of philandering husbands from deserving wives and, when called upon, bilking cuckolded spouses on behalf of greedy, unfaithful ones.
The vacancy in his heart is suddenly filled almost to the point of bursting w hen Catherine Zeta-Jones walks into his office one day. The soon to be ex-wife of a client, she’s everything Clooney thinks he needs to give his life meaning. She’s smart, tough and radiantly beautiful. Unfortunately, as Clooney proves in court, she’s also a golddigger, a woman who thinks nothing of marrying a man for the purpose of divorcing him and walking away with half his worldly goods.
When Clooney prevents Zeta-Jones from seeing a single red cent in settlement, his command of the law does not endear him to her. It does however set in motion a chain of events-complete with a requisite third act twist-the Coens presume viewers will find darkly comic, reminiscent of Sturges, Hawks and Wilder and, above all, novel but which audiences are at least as likely to find periodically dull and forced.
Clooney’s character, for example, is only a couple of rungs up the evolutionary ladder from a stick figure. Inexplicably, his comportment is leading man smooth one minute and cartoon-like the next (There’s at least as much Jim Carrey as Cary Grant to this performance). A running joke concerning the character’s fixation with his pearly white teeth is established but then abruptly abandoned. Toward the end of the film, he reveals criminal proclivities not even hinted at earlier in the picture.
Zeta-Jones likewise finds herself grappling with a deficit of character development. A serial divorcee, she’s easy on the eyes but hard to figure. What are the Coens going for here? Are we really expected to find a soulless fortune chaser sympathetic? Or interesting? In their best films, minor characters are fleshed out more fully and with more imagination than the central ones are here.
The story is similarly slapdash, which might explain why the script sat on a shelf for eight years. Early on, the prospect of Clooney and Zeta-Jones making a love connection has appeal but, by the movie’s halfway point, both have strayed so far into goofball cartoon territory that any sizzle has been sapped by the silliness.
The film comes to hilarious life briefly when Billy Bob Thornton enters the picture as a clueless oil baron duped by Zeta-Jones and Geoffrey Rush is a riot as a ponytailed TV producer taken to the cleaners by Clooney. Otherwise this is a decidedly hit or miss deal which, despite the current outpouring of critical praise, is destined to rank among the Coen’s least memorable achievements.
With one of a kind classics like “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink” and “Fargo” to their credit, the pair would be wise to put aside this obsession with screwball comedy’s heyday and take a cue or two from their own golden age.