Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

As much as like and admire movies by the Coen brothers, I always view their films at a distance – an emotional or psychological distance – because I’m never quite sure where they’re coming from. I find this remains true with their most recent released film, Intolerable Cruelty.

As I mentioned about Bill Murray in discussing Lost in Translation, when humour is dry, particularly where it is tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic, after a while you cease to trust the performer (or film). You are never sure how you are intended to respond. Is this a joke? Are they poking fun at something? Are they poking fun at me?

So it is with the Coens, and so it appears to be in Intolerable Cruelty. As usual with their films, it is very stylish. Just as The Man Who Wasn’t There captured the look and feel of a period noir piece, so Intolerable Cruelty gets the feel and look of a screwball comedy precisely.

Or almost precisely.

There is a very odd equation that goes on in the Coen movies, particularly in the overt comedies (like this film or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). While it is shot and played deadpan, it is also over-the-top, at least in terms of the actor’s performance. It is almost stagy, so we’re always aware that is is a performance, that it is a film.

This is why I say it captures screwball comedies, but not quite. When the classic screwball movies were made (roughly the 1930’s) they had many stagy, over-the-top performances. But given the infancy of the movie genre at the time they were made, I’m not convinced they came across that way. I don’t think an audience would have seen that way.

But today, we do. And when we do, and we know we’re seeing a by skilled filmmakers like the Coen’s (who have given us such films as Fargo), we suspect there is a reason for it and the reason is that it is part of the joke. Which it likely is, at least to some degree.

But later scenes in Intolerable Cruelty suffer from this because they, at least in a genuine screwball comedy, would not be intended in a tongue-in-cheek way. They would be meant to be seen as genuine. (Usually they would be a scene like a declaration of love, where two characters come to a realization of their feelings toward one another.)

But in this film, we don’t get this. There is one scene in particular where George Clooney’s character is playing such a scene to Catherine Zeta-Jones but it comes across as false, as part of the joke, because Clooney is still giving a staged performance. Are we too laugh at Clooney? Sympathize with him? You can’t really tell what you’re intended to feel and, upon reflection, you understand you don’t feel anything because you’re still at a distance from the film as you wonder what it wants to be.

Later still, Clooney gives a speech to a large room. Here, you suspect it is meant to be the genuine thing. He appears to finally slip into a performance that has dropped its stagy, tongue-in-cheek quality. But by this time, he’s lost you because the film hasn’t made any emotional commitment to anything. It has insisted on a kind of mocking, sophomoric kind of wit throughout. When it finally goes, more or less, “But seriously, folks …,” you don’t take it seriously. It’s moment was lost several scenes back.

Still … there are very funny scenes in this movie and it is quite enjoyable. It just isn’t completely satisfying. Clooney and Zeta-Jones are beautiful in the film, something like Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. However the distance I mentioned prevents you from ever really caring a great deal for either of them.

The movie also has a number of great supporting performances, particularly those of Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thorton.

The Coen brothers continue to make brilliant films. But I think it’s about time they stopped being students of the form and being genuine storytellers. As Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation, it is time they removed their tongues from their cheeks and simply tell a straight ahead story on film.

One last note …

The great screwball comedies usually have a least one major character who doesn’t play things over-the-top with a stagy performance. If you look at My Man Godfrey, you’ll see William Powell give a brilliant, comic performance that could easily be lifted and placed in a drama. He doesn’t give us a performance that winks at the audience. He simply performs.)

© 2003 Piddleville Inc.

Leave a Reply