Intolerable Cruelty
a film by Joel and Ethan Coen
Screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and the Coens
story by Robert Ramsey, Mattthew Stone and John Romano

The latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, from a story by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano, with a screenplay by Ramsey, Stone and the Coens, is their most mainstream effort to date - but not without a tinge of the dangerous unpredictability that has added interest and texture to all their work. The film shows a refusal to be confined by past success and a willingness to experiment (once again) with the identity they have established as film-makers.

Those who value the Coens for the blackly-humorous - sometimes macabre - perspective that often informs their work will find it more elusive - less blatant - here. They provide satirical insight into the workings of relationships and the absurdities of social convention that is no less cutting that what we have come to expect, but here they employ imagery that is less bizarre (think the wood-chipper from Fargo or the hatbox from Barton Fink) and a tone that is more subtle and sophisticated.

The animated opening credits sequence - a delightful and wonderfully ambiguous little piece of film-making in its own right - sets the tone for the slightly off-kilter humor, while simultaneously reassuring us with rueful and ironic commentaries on the traditional imagery of romance. It functions as a sort of update of the acerbic but ultimately tolerant assessment of the amorous frailty of the species offered by Shakespeare's Puck.

The Coens love period film. They have done noir - The Man Who Wasn't There, certainly and arguably Barton Fink and even Miller's Crossing - but this is their first foray into screwball comedy. The Big Lebowski was an edgy, retro melding of noir and screwball, seasoned with large dollops of surrealism, but Intolerable Cruelty is a straight-ahead homage to the Gable/Lombard, Grant/Hepburn tradition that gets the job done.

The satire is broad, and the targets are easy. As the 30's screwball directors had audiences laughing at the foibles of "High Society," so the Coens take swipes at subjects like television, BoTox and infidelity and set the story in the world of the super-rich and the lawyers who serve them. Like hitting the broad-side of a barn with a haybale - but they do, repeatedly, accurately and amusingly, to the point where it works pretty well.

The film is a fable about romantic love. It has a happy ending. There is clever, snappy dialogue. There are plot twists and double-crosses galore, and a piece of what might be described as the Coens' trademarked "dark slapstick" that is done to perfection.

The story revolves around the career of highly successful, workaholic lawyer Miles Massey - author of "The Massey Pre-Nup," an unbreakable pre-nuptial agreement. His self-image of detached, professional cynicism is put to the test when he has to defend the fabulously wealthy twit Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) from divorce proceedings brought by his predatory soon-to-be-ex-wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The mutual fascination between Marylin and Miles - which they resist at first - develops through a set of encounters - including Miles's successful defense of Rex in a very funny courtroom scene - that follow the attraction-repulsion-attraction pattern familiar from screwball romance. One thing that sets the Coens' 21st Century version apart is that neither character is particularly sympathetic, and the film-makers' dispassionate observation invites reflection not only on the characters themselves, but also on the crassly materialist social and cultural milieu - our own - from which they arise.

Like all screwball comedy, the humor is character driven. The dynamics of the relationship between the central characters is the mainspring of the whole glorious invention, and on the energy of that relationship the entire production stands or falls. The Coens' are famous for working well with actors and bringing out the best in them, and that skill is apparent in this film.

The performances make the thing work. Characterizations that flirt with - but never quite roll wholly over into - caricature, yet create a believable chemistry between the actors are key. Zeta-Jones and Clooney make their characters appealing, without having to make them "likeable" in the usual sense. Their comic timing is impeccable.

The subtle innuendo in the lifted eyebrow and the restrained double take (a la Cary Grant) are strengths for Clooney that he has developed into polished and effective tools. As he did in O Brother Where Art Thou, he uses his good looks as a comic foil for another running gag about vanity that amuses but also underlines the insecurity that lies beneath his dash and swagger. He combines suave charm and cynicism with a sense of almost child-like neediness that sketches out the full dimension of this specific version of the "empty success."

Zeta-Jones (an actress whose glamour-girl looks, modeling background and Hollywood insider connections have made me suspicious of her acting ability) shows a real comic flare here. Marylin is an "ice-princess," calculating and elegant, but Zeta-Jones transmits enough of her uncertainty and vulnerability - particularly in a scene where Miles unexpectedly kisses Marylin in his offices, while contracting to handle her pre-nuptial agreement for marriage to another man. - to effectively presage her eventual melt-down.

Like the classics of the genre, the script is filled with quirky, original supporting parts. The Coens are adept at writing dialogue for these minor players, and bringing them to life on screen. The engaging composition and variety these small touches add shouldn't be underestimated in the contribution they make to the success of the film.

Paul Adelstein shines as the comic side-kick, Wrigley, His interplay with Clooney is classic two-person comedy and their timing together is superb. Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Jenkins and Geoffrey Rush give great supporting performances, peopling the film with the kind of eccentricity that is a defining aspect of the screwball genre.

Tom Aldredge, Julia Duffy, Jonathan Hadary and Cedric the Entertainer all make minor but pivotal contributions that accumulate to produce the fluid ensemble feel of the piece - that is responsible for so much of what makes it effective.

The Coens don't really stretch their actors here (except perhaps Zeta-Jones, by casting her body in a supporting role and letting her comic acting - for once - take the lead), but they give them something fun and workable to do, and they do it with great skill, as well as obvious enthusiasm and energy.

The Coen brothers have worked with much of the same crew in many films and the accomplished facility of this kind of ensemble work - where all of the technical aspects interact with economy and style - has become part of the "look" of their work.

From the theatrical demeanor of Barton Fink to the noir gloss of The Man Who Wasn't There; from the "home-movie" air of Fargo to the magical realist effects of O Brother Where Art Thou, the combination of camera-work, music, editing and design creates a technical platform of support from which the stories benefit tremendously. Intolerable Cruelty, with its wonderful, evocations of the visual presence of classic screwball films, is no exception.

The only thing "missing" in this film is the Coens' trademark edginess. But given that some of their films - most notably Raising Arizona and Barton Fink - were really undermined by what seemed a compulsion to be "edgy" when it wasn't really appropriate to the gestalt of what they were trying to accomplish - that might be a good thing.

That the absence of such overtly transgressive, challenging elements in the story-telling makes the film a little superficial, a little glib, is a small failing, especially since it does glibness and superficiality - again, genre hallmarks - with such flair.

Intolerable Cruelty doesn't do a whole lot - and it doesn't aspire to be much - but what it does do, it does exceedingly well, and what it aspires to achieve, it achieves with talent, economy, expertise and great entertainment. It is the best screwball comedy I have seen made in the last two decades at least - maybe more - keeping the tradition of Hawks, Wilder, Sturgis et. al. alive.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z