Resurrecting the brilliant comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood--think like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, and The Lady Eve--the Academy Award winning Coen brothers have once again given audiences a winning revival of the classic screwball genre with their surefire hit, Intolerable Cruelty.
Like The Hudsucker Proxy--the Coen's satirically rich take on big business--Intolerable Cruelty features all the key ingredients that go into making a successful screwball comedy, including fast-talking, witty repartee, ridiculous, farcical situations, and most importantly, romance. Only this time around, the famous brother act who rose to indie film stardom with such irreverent black comedies as Fargo and Raising Arizona, have invited two of Hollywood's hottest stars--George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones--along for the ride, creating the most hilarious battle of the sexes since the deliciously dark War of the Roses.
Paying homage to Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges, the Coen brothers put Intolerable Cruelty's circular narrative and first-class camera work to good use by setting the stage for a razor-sharp showdown where Miles Massey (George Clooney) and Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) duke it out long enough to ensure the ultimate payoff, a fiery tête a tête that leads to pure, unadulterated passion. Opening with a pitch-perfect scene, in which a baffled television producer named Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush) finds his wife in bed with a dimwitted pool man, the talented twosome do a near perfect job staging the lowdown, dirty rotten schemes commonly associated with modern-day divorce proceedings.
Predictably, this over the top subplot ties in neatly with the hefty divorce settlement Marylin Rexroth seeks from her rich, unfaithful husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann). Leaving the door wide open for L.A.'s famed matrimonial attorney, a bloodless, bleached to the gums Miles Massey--the man for whom the ironclad "Massey pre-nup" was coined--to waltz into the courtroom, outwit the unflappable serial divorcée, and lay the groundwork for a series of underhanded revenge tactics that become more outrageous with each passing moment.
Of course, all these wacky shenanigans--the most ingenious of which is a tongue-in-cheek pre-nuptial meeting between Marylin, Miles, and her soon-to-be husband, billionaire oil tycoon Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton)--are but a mere plot device to distract our potential love birds from getting together. The audience knows in advance that certain films, especially screwball comedies, have a predetermined code--call it the romantic comedy chain of events--that prohibit would-be lovers from seeing their devilish ways long before a film is about to cue the obligatory exit music and roll its credits. After all, inane conflict is arguably what allows screwball comedy to circle round and round from point A to point Z, before conveniently resolving its cinematic dilemma in one fell swoop. This, however, isn't what draws viewers into the Cineplex. It's the in-your-face chemistry between its stars. And George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones certainly have that palpable, come-hither electricity in spades.
In fact, Clooney and Zeta-Jones are so red-hot--particularly in a biting scene where Marylin and Miles exchange Shakespearean barbs over a glass of Chateau Margaux--that when they slither on-screen and form two halves of a duplicitous whole, the audience can't help but think they've been transported back to the 30s and 40s, when brisk banter was as much of a sport as it was verbal foreplay. Clooney--the king of jousting--doesn't just play Miles Massey, he embodies him. He does it by dominating Intolerable Cruelty with the same comedic sensibility and stylish panache as Cary Grant. While Zeta-Jones--in full Barbara Stanwyck mode--infuses her performance as a self-serving gold digger with such an edgy sense of venality that when Marylin appears to be developing a conscience, the audience wonders if she's just pulling another scam.
Dark, offbeat, quirky material has long been a staple in the Coen's work, but here the dynamic duo have given it a commercial boost, taking a well-written script--reworked by the brothers with screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone--and filling it with enough cynical charm to offset its mainstream premise. Chalk it up to good old-fashioned know how, but the Coen brothers have done the impossible. They have made a studio blockbuster without forgetting their indie roots.