Intolerable Cruelty (review)

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Down with Love

Thank God for the Coen brothers, whose movies always feel like some long-lost classic you’ve just never gotten around to seeing before, full of a wit and a wickedness that’s old-fashioned only in that there’s not much like it to be found these days. The Coens are like a little oasis of grown-up fun in a sea of adolescence that dominates at the movies. Not that some of those adolescent movies aren’t fun, and not that the weighty, serious grown-up movies aren’t important, too… but, oh what a treat it is to be able to laugh without having to turn your brain off or revert to junior high school, to be approached as an adult at the movies without also having to deal with, you know, depressed writers on the verge of suicide or the Holocaust or other bummers.

Of course since it’s the Coens you don’t even have to hope, before you get around to Intolerable Cruelty, that their first attempt at romantic comedy will be a cut or two or three above the usual pathetic mush about meeting cute and falling in true love and being insufferable while doing so. No, you can approach it trusting that the Coens will treat true love and grand passion and other fantastical nonsense precisely as the absurdities they are, that they’ll be all about poking as much well-aimed fun as possible, with enough bite to leave you reeling, and adoring every minute of it.

Leave it to the Coens (Blood Simple) — who cowrote with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (Big Trouble) — to whip up lovey-dovey insanity around a divorce attorney and a gold digger, two anti-romantics who so deeply deserve each other, who use money as the measure of who’s winning even in the throes of irrefutable attraction. As in the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s that the Coens invoke with abiding affection, the foibles — romantic and otherwise — of the ridiculously rich are not only fair game, puncturing them is the entire point. Cruelty is the flip side of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a Depression-era comedy for the 21st century wherein wealth and its attendant benefits — comfort, freedom, the ability to indulge the most bizarre fetishes — are as fantastical as starry-eyed romance.

Pulling it off requires, of course, the panache of old Hollywood, also in short supply these days — fortunately, two of the players with old-Hollywood panache in spades are on hand. George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Solaris) just grows ever more deliciously dreamy the goofier and loosey-goosier he gets, in that same way that, say, Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart could take pratfalls and be clueless idiots and still make a gal go weak in the knees. His Miles Massey (the divorce attorney), obsessed with the whiteness of his teeth and how unsatisfying life is even with two new cars, is a shark, but a cuddly one, and never more so than when he encounters his romantic nemesis. “You…. fascinate me,” he spits out like a curse to Marylin Rexroth, whose husband Miles is representing in her third (or is it fourth?) divorce. And one can clearly understand the maddening, tantalizing passion Miles is consumed with: Marylin is an impossibly gorgeous and infuriatingly heartless she-devil in the hands of Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas), a pit bull just barely disguised as a fluffy poodle. They’re horrible people, the pair of them, and you love them for their gameplaying and their charm and for the fact that they, surely, are both in for a lovely, horrible comeuppance, which may mean that they end up together and may mean they don’t, and you’re not sure which would be the worse fate.

It’s not the standard romantic comedy that features hired killers and dead bodies and ex-husbands sleeping in alleyways and other such tasty nastiness, and that’s what makes Intolerable Cruelty, on top of the champagne sparkle of the love-hate chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones, so brisk an antidote to the usual cuddly-poo claptrap. And theirs is an honest-to-goodness meeting of the minds… a meeting of evil minds, to be sure, but when was the last time a romantic comedy even attempted to be intellectual about attraction?

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