The issue, for me, has never been the basic nature of la méthode Coenist, an arch, slapstick genre gumbo-boil into which anything can be tossed: Carrollesque wordplay, Lou Costello ejaculations, magical thinking, Top 40 camp, Acme Inc. calamity, historical semi-satire, outrageous sentiment. The issue, at least since the mini-masterstroke of Fargo, has been the dissipating density of the brothers’ ideas; waiting out the downtime between inventions in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There fairly squelched their conceptual charm. Intolerable Cruelty falls somewhere mid-field, prosaic in style and batting .50 at yuks, yet entirely of a bouncy, lunatic piece. The film’s ethical universe is a poisonous mockery worthy of Donald Westlake: Marriage and divorce are merely maneuvers to seize or reseize assets; husbands and wives are embattled grifters; divorce lawyers are combat strategists for whom no lie is too absurd.
Cow-eyed matrimonial super-counsel Miles Massey (George Clooney) only becomes despondent when serial viper-divorcee Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) appears to be marrying for love; when her duplicitous schemes arise, he becomes joyous with ardor. Conjuring a Sturges-Tashlin anti-romantic hysteria, the Coens (with the help of several studio screenwriters, in various drafts) position Miles as the successful hollow man pining for love and meaning, more or less following Marylin’s career of husband-dumping and fortune-amassing with stars in his eyes. They’re amoral soulmates, but their very unscrupulousness keeps mucking things up. (Characters keep impulsively tearing up prenups, only to be told in alarm, “You’re exposed!”) The movie is brimming with legal doublespeak and looming backstory (the names of historic divorce settlements are familiar to everyone, but never explained), but it’s not above a simple who’s-on-first routine, as with a three-way courtroom terminology wrangle and a dyspeptic diner argument about a green salad.
Zeta-Jones is merely ravishing, but Clooney owns the film. Ordinarily best at sardonic, man’s-man confidence, he strides through Intolerable Cruelty with fantastic screwball zest. To see Clooney tenderize, season, grill, and serve this ham hock of a role is to see an old-fashioned virtuoso in perpetual motion. His restless artillery of double-takes, baffled winces, fake smiles, stunned glares, tongue-on-teeth inspections, and zealous line readings might make up the ripest lead perf in a Hollywood film since Cary Grant’s in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Like Sturges, the Coens love to stock the corners of their movies with vivid dollops of screaming caricature, and here Jonathan Hadary (as a flaming concierge on the stand), Cedric the Entertainer (as a splenetic private dick), and Tom Aldredge (as the law firm’s decrepit founder) recognize no bounds to their yowling. For many, the cruel lack of sympathy the Coens display toward their characters has always been intolerable, and certainly the trampolining cartoonishness tends to keep the scenario’s social critique at a safe distance. (Their unimaginative catalog of femmes fatales wears thin, too.) But taking easy shots at lawyers, millionaires, and gold diggers doesn’t mean wasted gunpowder. (If only this pleasantly vicious cynicism were as ubiquitous as our mutant faith in legal dickering and wealth honor.) At any rate, the film comes around, in typical Coen fashion, to selling a refrain of uplift it has otherwise spent every ounce of its energy refuting. Whatever: It’s a barrel of monkeys, and Clooney’s the bull baboon.