O Brother


Intolerable Cruelty

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, November 3, 2003


It's fashionable in Hollywood for brothers to team up to make movies, probably because it's a clever way to achieve the artistic integrity of the auteur method without its crushing workload and lonely megalomania. The most experienced and consistently delightful "frauteurs" are Joel and Ethan Coen, whose tenth film together is the relentlessly amusing screwball romantic comedy "Intolerable Cruelty." Like the pregnant lady sheriff played by Joel's wife Frances McDormand in her Oscar role in "Fargo," the brothers, amidst all the weirdness of their movies, just keep getting the job done with good humor and efficiency.

The Coens are to Hollywood what Tom Stoppard, author of "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," is to the stage: enormously bright and funny innovators. And like Stoppard, their best efforts (to my mind, "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Big Lebowski," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") are subversively cheerful.

This drives many critics to dismiss both Stoppard and the Coens as emotionally shallow. Psychologist Peter D. Kramer, author of "Listening to Prozac," has pointed out that because so many artists are depressives (especially manic-depressives), our culture tends not to take seriously creative individuals who strike us as, well, depressingly happy and healthy. We stereotype them as inauthentic because they aren't suffering mightily enough for our edification.

Unfortunately, though, the Coens haven't been laughing all the way to the bank. It's always been a struggle for them to find a big enough audience to justify their almost unique arrangement in which they enjoy studio financing without studio control. Their nine movies have in total grossed only $134 million domestically, which is what the Wachowski brothers' "The Matrix Reloaded" earned during its first four days.

Like Stoppard's plays, the Coens' movies have often been too complex to be enjoyed on a first viewing. "O Brother" languished in limited release for months before its wonderful soundtrack of 1930s country music made it a modest hit. "Lebowski" never caught on until it came out on video. And "Hudsucker," which is one of the few recent movies to actually deserve the adjective "Capraesque," remains rarely seen.

The Coens keep costs low by storyboarding each shot ahead of time, like Alfred Hitchcock, which lets them methodically zip through their shooting schedules. Still, their budget desires have grown over the years, and they recently endured a sizable setback when their long-planned production of "To the White Sea" went under. Brad Pitt was to have played a WWII tailgunner shot down during the firebombing of Japan. There would have been almost no dialog as he tried to elude capture. Ultimately, this combination of unusual style with massive special effects proved too risky to secure adequate backing.

Perhaps in response, "Intolerable Cruelty" is their most commercial movie. George Clooney plays Beverly Hills' most ruthless divorce attorney, but he meets his match in Catherine Zeta-Jones, who collects and discards rich husbands. The story is even reasonably predictable. After all, how can the two most glamorous-looking of modern stars not wind up together?

The profit logic of romantic comedies is obvious -- you don't need to blow up Tokyo. But movies have stumbled into a comedic dry spell in recent years, perhaps because most of the joke-writing talent got sucked into television during the sit-com boom back in the Nineties. So, the Coens have turned their extravagant fertility of invention to punching up the jokes in a script begun by others. They went more for quantity than quality (although there's one climactic sight gag that will make all the highlight reels). Still, there are simply so many jokes that it would be churlish to complain too much that they aren't as original as in "Lebowski."

Zeta-Jones is so beautiful that women have trouble identifying with her, so she's best cast as a bad girl, like Elizabeth Hurley, only with acting talent.

Clooney was a late bloomer. In the 1980s, when Sean Penn was already acclaimed the acting prodigy of his generation, Clooney was stuck with minor roles in such films as "Return of the Killer Tomatoes: The Sequel." Yet, he's now the more intriguing talent. As strong as Penn's performance is in Clint Eastwood's new "Mystic River," he's just doing The Sean Penn Role again -- you know, the fierce but slightly defective-looking tough guy in torment.

In contrast, with Clooney these days, you never know what you'll get. The Coens highlighted his resemblance to Clark Gable in "O Brother," and here they have him channeling a mildly cartoonish Cary Grant. Imagine the devious Walter Burns from "His Girl Friday," only popeyed with unrequited love.

It's not fair to measure any actor against Grant, who was arguably the greatest movie star ever, but for the ability to be sexy and funny simultaneously, Clooney can stand the comparison as well as anybody.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language, and brief violence.



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