We often take it as a given that Hollywood is a scorched desert barren of true creativity. Movie studios are fiefdoms controlled by monomaniacal studio executives who dream only of blockbustersand who consequently only greenlight big, stupid movies with big, stupid stars. As writers and directors cower in fear for their next paycheck, the Hollywood factory churns out lowest-common-denominator products that look just like the products we saw the year before, and so on.
Of course, none of that explains the Coen brothers.
Joel and Ethan Coen have forged a Hollywood career writing, directing, and producing movies that seemingly no executive in his or her right mind would ever agree to finance. From white-trash baby kidnappers in the Southwest (Raising Arizona) to an aging hippy detective who likes to bowl (The Big Lebowski), from a hula-hoop-inventing patsy in 50s corporate America (The Hudsucker Proxy) to the Depression-era misadventures of escaped convicts who occasionally sing (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?), the Coens create one-of-a-kind movies attuned to their own sensibilities aloneforget any kind of "demographic." This confuses many audiences and enrages most critics. Their biggest "hit," Oh Brother, made a whopping $45 million in the U.S.which is roughly the amount spent on donuts for the cast of Terminator 3. Their biggest critical success, Fargo, was based on a true crime that never really happened. And yet, the Coens still get those greenlights. Who the hell are these guys that they can get away with this stuff?
Perhaps it is best that we do not press the question. Rather, we should just be thankful that the Coens are allowed to do what they do and enjoy the results. For many moviegoers, however, thats impossible. Either you groove to the Coens sense of humor and their movies-about-movies style or you dontthere isnt a middle ground.
Until now, perhaps. With Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens have made their most "mainstream" movie yet, one that anyone can enjoy. Coen brothers loyalists may dispute the "m" word, but Intolerable Cruelty is a first for the Coens: Its a movie with a plot than can be described in a single sentence yes, just like all the screenwriting guidebooks command, and just as every studio executive expects. In fact, here it is: A successful divorce attorney falls in love with the former wife of one of his clientseven as he makes sure she doesnt get a dime out of her divorce.
Thats it! Its the kind of romantic comedy that any Hollywood hack could direct. Weve seen and forgotten a million of them in the past year alone. But in the hands of the Coens, Intolerable Cruelty zings with oddball characters, cute gags, snappy dialogue, and real chemistry. And isnt that enough?
George Clooney stars as the masterful divorce lawyer Miles Massey, creator of the impenetrable Massey Pre-Nup. Although fabulously successful and a leader in his craven field, the ennui-ridden Massey yearns for new challenges. When buffoonish zillionaire Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) wants his wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to get nothing in their divorcedespite the fact that shes videotaped him cavorting with a bimbo in a motel roomMassey relishes the contest. Naturally, he falls for the calculating Marylin, and hilarity does indeed commence. Furthermore, Clooney and Zeta-Jones exude so much genuine sex appeal that they create a swirling vortex of magnetism long before they ever clinchsomething that has never happened in, say, any romance starring Meg Ryan ever.
Throughout the Coen brothers career, theyve applied their singular perspective to different Hollywood genres, even if the final movies were only distantly related to gangster dramas, noir murder tales, or, uh, Homers Odyssey. But Intolerable Cruelty is still very recognizable as a romantic comedy in the traditional Hollywood format. It may not rival the true classics of several generations ago, but Intolerable Cruelty comes as close as any movie has gotten in the past decade or so. Its also the out-and-out funniest Coen brothers movie since Hudsucker. The Coens tweak the conventions of the form just enough to let you in on the joke without popping the bubble of movie fantasy. So while Clooney and Zeta-Jones play it fairly straight, comic relief comes from all directions via truly zany side characters: Geoffrey Rush as a pony-tailed daytime TV producer, Billy Bob Thornton as a prototypical Texas millionaire, Cedric the Entertainer as a smack-tacking detectiveand then theres Wheezy Joe and Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy. Kooky as only the Coens can get.
With each movie they create, the Coen brothers are assailed with charges that their work lacks "humanity." But warmth and feeling are evident in the obvious joy they feel in creating their movies. Intolerable Cruelty is no exception, though hardcore Coen fans expecting to see the brothers usual genre twisting may be disappointed. This is a Coen brothers movie for everyoneat the highest common denominator.