Joel and Ethan Coen are the laziest sods in the movie business.
The Big Lebowski (1998) marked the turning point in their career, and also the beginning of my disillusionment with them. It was that movie which announced the levelling-out of their ambition: henceforth, their highest goal was to make comedy that aspires to be a live-action equivalent to TV's The Simpsons.
What about The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)? It was ostensibly a more serious effort. Yet it merely provided proof that the Coens are pastiche artists incapable of creating material that really stretches them – or touches us.
Intolerable Cruelty is not the worst film by the Coens, but it settles too easily for this facile mode of cartoon humour. They have found their supreme star in George Clooney, who is ever ready to pull a goofy facial expression or contort himself into a ridiculous posture.
Miles (Clooney) is a divorce lawyer who is completely on top of his manipulative game. That is, until he meets Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a client who has more tricks up her sleeve than even he can second-guess.
A strange kind of love is in the air for these two, and it is up to the audience to determine who is scamming whom.
The film is full of the kitsch pop-culture jokes that fill the cracks in every film by the Coens these days – pride of place, this time around, going to the syrupy songs of Simon and Garfunkel.
Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush have amusing secondary roles.
Unusually, the Coens are this time working from a script not originated by them. The slightly new element in the mix here is the fulsome homage paid to Billy Wilder films like The Fortune Cookie (1966). As in the work of the master, the comedy hinges on certain repeated gestures, like the tearing up of an iron clad pre-nuptial agreements. When the pace quickens, this manic repetition creates a few decent laughs.
The biggest gag in Intolerable Cruelty involves a gun wielded by an asthmatic hired killer. Without giving the punch line away, it is truly a gag in what has come to be regarded as the Tarantino style. But this comparison is not kind to the Coens.
Where Tarantino boldly reinvented himself by taking his level of achievement up several notches with Kill Bill (2003/4), the Coens are going nowhere. They keep shuffling between guns and gags, film noir homages and screwball timing, with occasionally a little undergraduate intellectualism thrown in as a topper.
It's not enough.
© Adrian Martin October 2003