When reviewing a romantic comedy, many critics tend to bat around the word “chemistry.” This coopted science-become-voodoo is held up as the lynch-pin of the picture: if the leads have chemistry, the film succeeds, if not, it fails. But chemistry is an uncontrollable substance, left for the gods of love to sort out. And something tells me that Joel and Ethan Coen would never leave the fate of one of their films to mere chance. So the real question is: Does “Intolerable Cruelty” have cohesion of vision, spirit, and humor? The answer: An alchemist couldn’t create a more golden union.
Anyone who has seen a Katherine Hepburn movie knows how “Intolerable Cruelty” is going to end, but it is the chess moves themselves and not the checkmate that make the game. The movie begins with a Simon and Garfunkel song (anyone familiar with their turbulent history will get the joke and be clued into the plot of the film) playing in a speeding Jag driven by Geoffrey Rush…with a ponytail. He is the Man, a Daytime Emmy-winning producer, master of his domain. But his good spirits are dashed when he finds a pool cleaning truck in his driveway — a strange occurrence, as he has no pool. After a violent encounter with his wife, he arms himself with a Polaroid camera, and takes some very incriminating photographs of her with the pool-boy. “Explain this away, darling!” he cackles maniacally. With this champagne cork, the Brothers C open their movie.
Rush thinks divorcing his wife will be a breeze but Miles Masse (George Clooney) thinks otherwise and he should know, being the hottest divorce attorney this side of the sun. Unfortunately, Masse represents Rush’s wife, and through his gentle finessing of facts, Rush ends up with only a cardboard box to his name. Meanwhile, wealthy (“I’ve got a man that waxes my jet”) Masse is bored with divorce law — he wants a challenge. Enter Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) who gives Masse the case of a lifetime: to make sure his wife doesn’t get a penny even though she has a videotape of him sleeping with another woman. But Ms. Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) isn’t going to take this lying down.
With the essential conflict thus established, “Intolerable Cruelty,” sets about bringing down the house. Silly characters abound providing the foil for the fiery acting of Zeta-Jones and Clooney. In a zany courtroom scene a Frenchman named The Baron makes an appearance and exhibits that wonderful French gift of transforming common English phrases such as “silly man” into hilarious put-downs. At another inspired point Masse is called in to see the senior partner. He is led down a claustrophobic, dark passageway into a cluttered office revealing its Frankensteinian occupant who is hooked up to dozens of tubes and machines, recalling the weirdness of earlier Coen films.
But mostly this valentine of a movie shies away from old Coen antics, instead creating a unique atmosphere of camp and wit that is somewhere in the undiscovered territory between the utter silliness of “The Hudsucker Proxy” and the understated noir of “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Clooney outdoes his Homeric performance in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” with his slick, sincere turn as Masse. His face is more subdued here but his voice cuts like a knife while still being hypnotic enough to coax anything from his victims on the stand. At various times his hair attempts to upstage him, but he firmly controls the show. Zeta-Jones is no less determined and hypnotic. Her stunning beauty has both the camera and Masse eating out of her hand. In their best scene, Clooney and Zeta-Jones negotiate a settlement on the wine for dinner while looking each other firmly in the eyes. Clooney even orders from memory so he doesn’t have to look away.
While the movie is filled with intellectual dialogue, the Coen Brothers ultimate message dismisses intellectualism for love. While Miles and Marylin may sincerely quote love poetry to each other at dinner, when they get to court they recite the other’s poem, the sweet meaning thereby annulled. It doesn’t stop there. Throughout the movie legal jargon is repeated again and again along with emotion-heavy words such as “fascinate” and “exposed.” By the time the end arrives these words have lost all meaning. It is those rare moments in the film when Clooney and Zeta-Jones cannot speak that the most feeling and sincerity are conveyed. Is “Intolerable Cruelty” telling us that we hide far too often behind language in order to escape love and vulnerability? Silence is my reply.