Not to sound callous or senselessly cruel, but the new Coen brothers farce Intolerable Cruelty isn't cruel enough.
The title suggests a dabble into those bitterly funny war of the sexes comedies from the 1940s where men and women go to extravagant lengths to defame, deface, and generally break the heart of their prey, all the while tossing Tiffany lamps and witty barbs in a fruitless effort to disguise just how crazy they are about each other.
The dialogue and the swank is the thing with screwball comedy, not the plot, which we have seen elsewhere, and know how it will play. But Intolerable Cruelty, co-written between Joel and Ethan Coen and Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, and produced by the unfailingly mainstream sensibility of Brian Grazer, has the feel of a watered-down compromise between parody and homage.
A love tap of sorts.
Take the opening scene. For a good while, it bears the undeniable mark of the off-center and sunny Coens. Geoffrey Rush cameos as a Los Angeles TV producer with an awful ponytail, driving with the top down through the Ventura hills, singing loudly to “The Boxer.” This is great parody, the magically twisted L.A. of The Big Lebowski, and I wish the Coens made more movies there. You recognize these Minnesota natives' love for the cheerfully tacky in the commonplace; Paul Simon gets three more songs butchered on the soundtrack, then Chuck Mangione turns up as unmissable elevator music. Later a tray of glazed pastries competes with George Clooney for serious screen time. It's the best understated laugh in the picture. But back to Rush. He finds his wife sleeping with the pool guy, and they don't have a pool. She stabs him with his People's Choice Award and everyone runs in endless circles.
This is tortured homage.
The rest is a silly mess: a fun disappointment from the idiosyncratic Coens, a sputtering broad comedy neither here nor there. It has the loose-limbed gait of old Looney Tunes shorts where Bugs stumbled across a ballroom full of caricatures of movie stars like Cary Grant and Peter Lorre and much running around and smacking of lips happened - only without the darkly comic mean streak that ran through the best Looney Tunes. But Clooney plays his caricature of himself (or is it Grant?) to the wild-eyed hilt.
With his jaw jutted and his rip-curl hair and million-watt smile, he might as well be a love-struck rabbit. Clooney is the flapping, spit-taking Miles Massey, occasionally suave but forever admiring his own teeth. Miles' charm and ruthlessness have made him the most wanted divorce lawyer south of Malibu - a perfect mismatch for a gold-digging barracuda.
This is the unflappable Marilyn, played by a perfectly cast Catherine Zeta-Jones, who works her smoky eyes and va-va-va-voom-ness in tight expensive Chanel without moving a muscle. She looks more and more like Sophia Loren with every movie, only even more impossibly beautiful. She is photographed with the Los Angeles sun always smooching her long hair, and the Coens are right to just let her face sit, time to time, in the center of that great big screen, always revealing the opposite of what she's really thinking. Marilyn marries rich dummies (silly men, she says) and divorces them and her luggage has the initials to prove it - she has so many last names from annulled marriages everyone just calls her Marilyn.
“Obscene wealth becomes you,” Miles tells her, in one of the film's better lines, and he means that in a good way. He's smitten, and this is after he's discredited her in court and ruined one of her chances to milk her latest sucker for all the settlement she could get.
The rest is classic screwball material with the right surface gloss and the right performances and occasionally the right script, but always moving at the wrong rhythm. Random names - Sir Edmund Hillary, Henry the VIII - pop into conversation and are batted around for the sake of their sound repeated a dozen times in 30 seconds. This verbal repetition is a hallmark of the screwball sensibility. But you come to realize the rapid-fire banter is filling in for actual wit, without ever quite covering up the feel of a film growing wearier and wearier.
I'm making it sound worse than it is. If anything, Intolerable Cruelty is an admirable stumble in the mainstream. No actor here is as humanly recognizable as Frances McDormand in Fargo (still the Coens' best work); but there's also nothing as annoying as Jennifer Jason Leigh's Rosalind Russell impression in The Hudsucker Proxy. The Coen sensibility is intact, but the brothers have grown less fussy and let a welcome anarchic spirit return to their movies. There's a quick gag with an asthmatic hit man that stands alongside their best moments. There are bit players with faces so strange you sometimes think they make movies just to hold casting calls - even though the Coens spent a career shaping their ideas to fit the movie genres they love (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There) and the periods of American history they're fascinated with (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Miller's Crossing).
Taken together their films constitute a sort of epic of an America askew. So why, with every new picture, do I get the impression they'd rather be doodling in the margins?