At some point during the development process for “Intolerable Cruelty,” the Coen brothers supposedly told producer/Ron Howard enabler Brian Grazer that the movie didn’t really seem like their kind of project. That, Grazer told them, was exactly why they should do it. “Intolerable Cruelty” is without a doubt the most different movie that the Coens have done yet, and for a filmmaking duo that always seemed just barely a half step away from self-parody, that has to be a good thing.
Fortunately, the result is a great movie. It’s apparent early on that the Coens (who reworked a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, the first time they’ve ever worked on someone’s else’s project) are in a pretty goofy mood, more so than at any time since “Raising Arizona.” The names alone (Miles Massey, Rex Rexroth, Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, and so on) present a significant departure from reality, as does the highly stylized banter between arch divorce lawyer Miles (George Clooney) and professional divorcee Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
You see, Marilyn hired private eye Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer, likely the most prominently billed black actor ever to appear in a Coen production) to follow her hubby Rex (Edward Herrmann in high doofus mode) to get videotaped evidence of his philandering, which Gus does. Divorce proceedings commence, with both sides out for blood. The uncompromising nature of the legal battle, along with Marilyn’s obvious allure, gives Miles, who’s become bored with his heretofore-limitless success at being filthy rich, admired, and relentlessly single, a life-changing bolt of energy. A romantic dinner and a few courtroom skirmishes later, Miles is completely hooked by Marilyn, which begins his downfall.
Not only are Zeta-Jones and Clooney the most beautiful people in Hollywood, or possibly the world (if this film is any evidence), but they’re also one of the best scrappy screen couples of recent years. We should let them have a few more films under their belt before announcing the two to be the new Hepburn-Tracy, but since you need to dig back in time to remember marquee star wattage like this, let’s just say it: George Clooney is the new Cary Grant. Sure, it’s been rumored for years that Clooney had the looks and the charm to rival old Cary, but based on even some of George’s better work like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” it was hard to imagine him being up to Cary’s standard in, say, “His Girl Friday.” That is, until now. For the proof, just listen to Clooney’s verbal jousting with Zeta-Jones (who is less of a revelation only because she never had somebody this good to go up against), or watch the way he uses every inch of his face and body (including a brilliant running gag involving teeth-bleaching) to back up every line.
As for the Coens, they’ve managed a sneaky sleight-of-hand that’s very similar to what Richard Linklater just did with School of Rock – crafting a mainstream, star-quality studio vehicle that retains just enough of their trademarks to keep things distinctive, but not so much to keep them from potentially raking in huge money. There are times when you miss the usual suspects on screen – where’s Hunter, Turturro, McDormand, Goodman, and Buscemi? – but at least the regular crew is on behind the scenes (Roger Deakins providing the lustrous camerawork, and Carter Burwell the bouncy score).
Probably the Coen’s funniest movie since “Raising Arizona” and, while some of their trademark moves have definitely been watered down, better this than their other big budget attempt: the lamentable “Hudsucker Proxy.”