Sunday, October 16, 2011

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

The distant sounds of seagulls chirping and waves breaking on the shore over the Universal logo may seem an odd way to begin a screwball comedy about divorce which never goes anywhere near the beach but as I was watching the beginning of this particular film from the Coen Brothers once again I flashed on the legendary final scene of their own BARTON FINK and where that film’s title character ends up, then suddenly it all made sense. Maybe the best way to deal with INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is to look at it as the Coens finally figuring out a way to make a movie (maybe even a wrestling movie, so to speak) for the Jack Lipnicks of the movie world who even they sometimes have to deal with, to finally at least try to make something that will please everyone. The very first onscreen credits don’t even mention them but rather producer Brian Grazer (or the way he always had to be referred as on the entertainment news show where I once worked, “Academy Award Winning Producer Brian Grazer”) and it also occurs to me that the film they made right before this was THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, probably the least commercial project they’ve ever made, so maybe they simply decided to go the complete opposite route with this one and see if making such a movie could work for them. Presuming they got over the writer’s block and figuring out what was in that box Barton was carrying around, of course. That part of it was important.

The thing is, though, it’s the ones that don’t quite make it that sometimes hurt the most. The films that are bad, where you can tell they’re bad from the very first moment, can be easier to shake off. But it hurts when so much about a particular film works and maybe it hurts even more than that when it’s the Coen Brothers. I always want to love their films. I desperately want to get even a sliver of the rush that their best work can give me, like when eons ago I emerged from the Coronet Theater on the Upper East Side after seeing BARTON FINK on opening night shattered to my very core or when gladly returning to BURN AFTER READING multiple times on opening weekend just for the sheer pleasure of the experience or when I saw TRUE GRIT on opening day knowing full well that I would return several days later on Christmas. And I did. Loved it even more the second time. But things don’t always work out the way I’d want it to. Released in October 2003, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY already seems to be kind of forgotten, pushed to the side for other more acclaimed films they’ve made since as well as a few George Clooney vehicles that have also gotten better reception from the world. It’s probably thought of as one of their weaker efforts by now—one hell of a curve to be grading on, that’s for sure—and I wish I could feel differently. It’s almost baffling for me to have this response considering that on the surface it seems like a movie that was made specifically for my own tastes and how some of it works extremely well, with more laughs packed into just the first third than some alleged comedies can manage in ninety minutes. But maybe thinking it was made for me is part of the problem—I still want it to be the sophisticated satire that I wish it was. Of course, if anyone is ever unsure just what the tone is supposed to be the preponderance of cartoony alliterate and rhyming names (“Ramona Barcelona” and “Bonnie Donaly” among others) alone should make it clear—the film clearly wants to be an update of the sort of manic flavor Preston Sturges specialized in and every beat of the plot feels mapped out with clockwork precision in a way that I can’t help but admire. But, and as I write this I’m still figuring out how to put it into words, something about the result just feels off as if a few key scenes were lost along the way or something in the stylization just didn’t translate correctly. Even down to the feel and look of the film it’s as if there was some kind of overall miscalculation of what the approach needed to be. Or maybe the ruthlessly dark comic method of the Coens which was later expertly placed into something like BURN AFTER READING was an imperfect fit for this rewrite job, their comedic approach not fully gelling with what was clearly meant to be a big-budget commercial comedy. Still, it’s not often these days that a film contains what is essentially a full-fledged Abbott & Costello routine which takes place as the trial sequence begins (“Have you sat before her before?” “No, the judge sits first, then we sit.”), so at least the film provides that much to the world. Smiles happen for me and more than a few times some sizable laughs as well but I still find myself sitting through a good amount of the running time wondering just what seems to have gone amiss.

When Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) learns from the private detective she has hired that husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) is in fact cheating on her she immediately initiates divorce proceedings but little does she know that Rex has retained that great Miles Massey (George Clooney), famed for the legendary Massey pre-nup, for his side of the case. Once the two meet during preliminary arguments Miles becomes instantly fascinated by her while at the same time being fully aware of her game plan to marry rich men followed by a speedy divorce. During the trial Miles does indeed prove his brilliance by proving without a doubt that was Marylin’s plan all along when marrying Rex, leaving her with nothing, but she soon reappears at Miles door with a new fiancĂ©e in the person of oil magnate Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and it soon becomes clear that she’s not going to be out of Miles’ life for long as his fascination with her only increases.

No movie that opens with a pony-tailed Geoffrey Rush in a convertible speeding through Beverly Hills as he sings along with “The Boxer” a beat ahead of the lyrics can be a total loss but in the case of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY the blitheness of this moment actually feels like an unfortunate Trojan horse, a bit of business that makes me feel like I’m in good hands but soon turns out to be almost a high point. For much of the first 40 minutes of the film things feel like aces, the plot clicking along as it builds to the hysterically funny boiling point of the divorce trial between the Rexroths leading to the appearance of Heinz, The Baron Krauss von Espy to blow the lid off her plan. But once that section ends something just seems to go wrong, almost as if there’s a reel missing at this point or something in the way the plot got mapped out was shuffled wrong somehow (Official screen credits: Story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano, Screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. For the record, this appears to be the last time where Joel is the only director credited, with Ethan still among the producers). The way things move feel a little like the story is leaping forward to the next step in the plot too quickly and maybe doesn’t allow for enough variation in how the characters interact with each other. One problem may be that there’s no grounding to things, no emotional center to bring any of this down to earth—I’m trying to come up with a better way to put it than saying that there’s no one to care about or ‘like’, but it feels true and winds up making the entire film feel kind of hollow. Miles Massey is presented as a snazzy, confident Master of the Universe type willing to do anything to win but at the same time he’s totally at sea in life, fearful of his own mortality and his comical ennui never feels all that genuine. Marylin Rexroth is a dragon lady without any qualms of what she’s doing, barely a single sign of a momentary hesitation that would justify any interest in her.

As for the supporting characters up against the leads, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine a swath of actors from the Sturges stock company taking on roles here if that director had made this film back in the 40s (I can actually remember somebody somewhere on the internet doing exactly this at the time the film came out and I wish it had been me) but the formula gets screwy in the case of Clooney and Zeta-Jones who are both directed to behave as larger than life as anybody else so any of the momentary hesitation that the likes of Henry Fonda or Barbara Stanwyck would display in the middle of all the screwball madness in the likes of THE LADY EVE never gets a chance to ring true here—their behavior is entirely made up of madcap behavior like the rest of what goes on around them. Some of it is genuinely funny madcap behavior, yes, with plenty of dialogue that deserves to be bottled but too much of it stays at one level, no variation of tone. Those first 40 minutes feel like they need to build to something between the two leads but the script instead plays games with them leading to a surprising twist as well as actions begun by both that make the fade out unsatisfying while also feeling like it’s attached to the wrong movie. And there’s never a genuine moment between the two of them where they drop all pretenses and become actual people. Yes, the film is doing a riff on Sturges but there’s no attempt to emulate the undeniable elegance of those films, Barbara Stanwyck trying to seduce Henry Fonda in his stateroom with him barely knowing what to do about it. I believe the Coens know how to pull off that sort of thing. They have at other times. Here it doesn’t seem to be part of their M.O. and it feels like there’s a hole at the center of the film as a result. Maybe there’s a certain structural oddity as well—the first act feels impeccable in how things are laid out, the second act feels slightly choppier building up to the revelation of the and then the rushed third feels crammed into about fifteen minutes so even though none of what happens is meant to be serious in the slightest it still feels malnourished. It connects together plotwise and the pacing is there—there really isn’t a scene which could be called superfluous and in some ways this tightness feels like it goes past the bone which is maybe why it seems like something is missing. Plus I wish that it were funnier. Or at least I wish it had a different tone that made it feel like the jokes, which I’ve hopefully indicated sometimes work very well, weren’t being pushed quite so hard. It all makes me feel like I’m being a grouch. Am I being a grouch? I can’t tell.

It’s a strange case, this film I find myself fighting with, because I could easily make a list of the things about it that I like or maybe even love—the Geoffrey Rush bit I already mentioned. Stacey Travis’ obviously unkempt hair that isn’t noticeable at first. The detailed speech as George Clooney’s Miles Massey comes up with a brilliant game plan for a client off the top of his head. The almost silent performance by the unbilled Royce D. Applegate as a client. Cedric the Entertainer slyly suggesting, “You want tact, call a tactician.” Clooney’s spit-take upon hearing Richard Jenkins’ first offer. The legendary line, “Fine! We’ll eat the pastry!” as the perfect button to that scene which gets a laugh out of me every single time. A sort of gulp/spit take made by Kiersten Warren as a friend of Marylin’s (maybe I just like spit takes). Edward Herrmann’s look of total bafflement at the end of the Abbott & Costello routine. Paul Adelstein’s hysterical “Why are we eating here?” during a stop at a crummy diner. Richard Jenkins coming back with, “Is this a legal argument, what’s good for the gander?” The judge in the Rexroth trial played by Isabel Monk O’Connor repeating, “I’m going to allow it” over and over until its payoff. The ultimate fate of Wheezy Joe. Come to think of it, all of those things I mentioned take place in the first forty minutes except for the final one (which is actually kind of similar to something Clooney also witnesses in OUT OF SIGHT, so maybe it’s a running theme for him) and maybe a few things like Cedric’s “Nail your ass!” catchphrase just aren’t as wildly funny as the movie seems to think they are. Visits to the inner chamber of the old man who runs the law firm, designed to provide all the terrors of mortality for Miles fall right in with the Coen Brothers approach but here it just feels out of place--even Rex Rexroth’s obsession with trains, which plays like something out of a thirties comedy just feels a little too silly. I don’t dislike INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, not at all. I’m really trying to find the good in it like few other films but maybe in some ways I wish the Coens had tossed everything in the script after page 40 and started over.

That one-two punch in ’03 & ’04 of the Coens making this and THE LADYKILLERS with Tom Hanks back to back always felt like an odd aberration as if they were testing things to see what it would really be like to attempt making no-holds-barred commercial comedies in the studio trenches—I suspect the odd credit in this film’s end crawl reading, “Adios SENOR GRAZER. Hello MISTER HAND.” refers to this. Neither film is among their best, let alone their most popular (how THE LADYKILLERS holds up, I have no idea since I haven’t seen it since opening day) and whether by coincidence or inspiration due to how they turned out when the duo reappeared in ’07 with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN it began what is inarguably one of their strongest periods. For that matter, it’s as if with BURN AFTER READING, another darkly comic look at divorce and disillusionment which also tosses a few dead bodies into the mix as well as George Clooney, they figured out how all of the farcical developments and tonal variations here were meant to go together. And with certain characters like the lovelorn gym manager in that film, played once again by Richard Jenkins, that film did manage to ground things amid the insanity. But here the result just plays as clinical, an experiment to make an old-fashioned screwball comedy with a modern day twist but even the aesthetics seem off—I keep thinking this should all look ultra-glossy with a very direct hard-light appearance when instead it’s shot in what look like burnt ember earth tones (Great, I think I just said something to criticize the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. Please forgive me).

And there’s just not much of a reason to care what happens—the movie starts and ends with a certain character who except for one brief moment is not seen at all for the rest of the running time and while there is a symmetry to how it all works out it also gives a feeling of a film where nothing that happened mattered, no change took place beyond a few good-looking people sparring with each other over things that never really matter. It’s a movie about a cynical person (or cynical people, or cynical world for that matter) trying to find something genuine in his life only to find out that the cynicism is really the only thing that makes sense and only when he’s honest about that cynicism can he find something genuine. That’s my guess, anyway. The existentialism of all this is a concept which feels ideal for the Coen Brothers but maybe this was the wrong movie to do that with so the end result just winds up being one of those films stranded in the middle somewhere, neither one thing or the other. I’m not sure they believe their particular brand of cynicism this time around and maybe they’re more comfortable when they don’t have to wrap things up in the expected way with a happy ending, like how they dispatch their characters at the end of something like BURN AFTER READING into a void, forced to finally deal with what they’ve done offscreen.

The performances feel like what they’re being directed to do as opposed to what the actors are probably capable of. George Clooney of course knows how to sell the confidence so he works much better during the first third just like the film as a man who pays so much attention to his teeth, appropriate for his profession. Points to him for also never being afraid to look like an idiot but I wonder if maybe one really great cartoonishly hysterical look by him would work better than twenty. Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking great, never seems human and she’s perfect casting for that, making just saying “Hello dahlings,” come off as genuine but she also doesn’t get much in the way of variation and the few looks of guilt or hesitation she gives late in the game just aren’t enough. Since it makes sense for the supporting characters to be broader, some of them work better although I wish there was maybe half as much of Paul Adelstein’s squirming Wrigley who loudly shrieks a few times too many. But Edward Herrmann, Geoffrey Rush, Richard Jenkins, Julia Duffy and Cedric the Entertainer all have their moments, plus Stacey Travis has a particularly good confused eyeball roll during one scene. Even a few of the bit players get to add small touches that add to the momentum like Wendle Josepher as Miles’ secretary and the memorable Irwin Keyes is Wheezy Joe. Playing her next husband Howard D. Doyle, Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t make as much of an impression, almost as if he was just showing up for a few days to do the Coens a favor but he does appear briefly alongside an unbilled Bruce Campbell, one of several cameos he’s made for the Coens.

It was a few years after THE LADYKILLERS until the Coens returned with the triumph of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the start of one of the best streaks of their career. It’s a shame that 2011 is going to be Coen-less but if they need to hunker down in their office back in New York to produce more great material then they can take their time. Plus considering the box office heights of something like TRUE GRIT they’ve proven they can achieve they might not need to undertake this sort of experiment again. But even if I find some of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY lacking I can’t help but think that there are few out there who can twist the fabric of structure the way they do here, with a pre-credit sequence seemingly detached from the main plot which winds up tying right into everything at the very end (fun discovery for hardcore Coenphiles—the name ‘Gopnik’ turns up six years before A SERIOUS MAN). Everybody has off-days, maybe this was just one of theirs, or maybe it was just an attempt at something which didn’t quite pan out. There are worse things to say about a film. In the end, I guess we’re still not sure if it was beneath Barton or not to even try writing that wrestling movie but maybe they didn’t need to find out for themselves. Barton, as we all know, never quite knew if that box was even his. I’m still not sure if the Coen Brothers ever decided if INTOLERABLE CRUELTY was theirs either. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I will eat some of the pastry. They’ve been going begging.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've got to agree that this has been kind of forgotten (after first being ignored). But I really enjoyed it, where I found Burn after Reading a little annoying. I felt that the Coens were looking down on all the characters. In ID, the characters may not have been likable, but they were beautiful and brilliant. That counts for something.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for screwball, although I haven't been impressed with most modern attempts. I see this as a Lady Eve, where both parties are equally matched.

Maybe it does flag toward the end, but by that time, I'm completely invested, so I don't care.

I still haven't seen The Ladykillers, and I may not...

Hi-Def Sheep said...

Great post. I agree with Bev's comparison between Cruelty and Burn. I'm always amazed at how few critics pick up on the screwball nature of Cruelty. And I agree with the comment on investment - that sense of goofy optimism that cannot be contained by cynicism is to too infectious, regardless of how Cruelty somewhat lumbers to its finish.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I'm a sucker for screwball too which makes me wish all the more that I liked this better. Really, I really do. But I appreciate your viewpoint, thank you.

Hi-Def Sheen--

Thanks so much for that, I'm very glad you liked it! Much appreciated!