In every art form, self-consciousness on the part of the maker(s) can either temper the product into an elegant contraption or, suck all the life out of it, leaving it a degraded, cynical bundle of simulacra. The Coen brothers, undeniably among the most inventive and distinctive American auteurs, have always walked the thin line between wild extravagance and smart-alecky decadence. They triumph when they give themselves over to sheer zaniness (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy) or when they open their hearts to a poignant, tragic sense of desperation (Barton Fink, Fargo, parts of Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There). Recently, the Coens have seemed increasingly like they're on autopilot; Intolerable Cruelty follows The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? as another comedy whose tongue is too far into its cheek to be able to say anything, and it is so lighthearted that it might as well be heartless completely.
Picture sun-drenched Los Angeles and the neighborhoods of the too glamorous, too worldly, too affluent stars and bigwigs of the entertainment industry, and the cynical lawyers who handle their divorces. George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a hotshot divorce attorney who keeps clowning around and mugging for the camera because he's disenchanted with his life, and desperate enough to spice it up with a little anarchy. He gets more than he bargained for in Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bombshell who has recently acquired video evidence of her rich husband's infidelity, and is aiming for a hefty divorce settlement. Massey's courtroom tactics on her husband's behalf thwart her plan and leave her with nothing, setting the stage for the infatuated Miles to try to woo her as she plots her revenge against him.
The setup is classic: the Coens here are closer than ever to their deepest influences in the quirky, wit-soaked comedies of Hollywood's golden age, particularly those of writer/director Preston Sturges. Like Sturges's films, Cruelty is too clever for its own good; every whimsical gesture is capped with a knowing smirk (surely the Coens don't actually believe that histrionically tearing up a copy of a prenuptial agreement is a legally sound cancellation of it), and every shot is composed just so to remove any sense of gravity from the events it depicts.
Again like Sturges, the Coens are not above inserting a climactic moment of supposedly heartfelt honesty. In a scene intended to tug on the heartstrings, Miles, after spending the night with Marylin, stands before a convention of divorce attorneys, disregards his speech, and offers a spontaneous, somberly worded plea for true love. It would be a beautiful world if we could be taken in by this, but sentimental moments in film require careful preparation, and the Coens' trickery always keeps a viewer's eyebrow raised. They don't play the scene for irony, or mockery, which they might well have done, considering how Marylin is about to screw Miles again. As a result, the scene dangles in limbo. The emotional tone throughout the film is similarly gaseous, as milkily insubstantial as its soft-focus California settings.
Movies like this often rely on powerful performances; a true star's charisma can mark the difference between near misses like Sturges' films and direct hits like The Philadelphia Story. Sadly, we don't get any star turns. Clooney's good, but he's no Clark Gable or Cary Grant. Too much goofball overacting makes it seem as if he still thinks he's starring in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Zeta-Jones' impenetrable character doggedly resists the screenplay's several attempts to humanize her.
In short, I am not giving Intolerable Cruelty a good review. Can the Coen brothers ever recover from the compulsion to spit their movies into existence and make films that repeat their innovations from 10 years ago? With two more productions in the pipeline for release in the next year-and-a-half, at least we will not have to wait long to find out.