Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) create a very distinctive style of movie. Most often, critics complain that it is precisely too much style that gets in the way of connecting with their movies.
For “Intolerable Cruelty,” there is a typical Coen mix of oddball characters and situations. But when you wed that with a script that has been floating around Hollywood for eight years, you get a marriage built on shaky ground.
George Clooney is back in slapstick mode, not unlike his comic turn in the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a few years back. His self-obsessed divorce lawyer even has a quirk not unlike the Dapper Dan hair gel fetish he has in “O Brother.” His new character is obsessed with his pearly white teeth.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is a sexy, gold-digging woman who is always a little out of reach. How she fits in with this style of broad comedy is a little trickier. She fares best when she keeps Clooney hanging on the line with sexual innuendo. But as she warms up to him, it’s less believable.
It’s hard to get a full grasp of the movie’s direction for quite a while. There must have been some hardcore tinkering, as Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone’s original story met with Joel and Ethan.
Geoffrey Rush jumps into the ridiculousness first in an uncomfortably unfunny scene that opens the film, but things slowly improve from there. When Clooney, along with hilarious co-stars Edward Herrmann and Paul Adelstein do an update on Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” routine, things really start to get rolling.
There are twists and turns and some crazy, weird moments that follow. Cedric the Entertainer and Billy Bob Thornton both contribute amusing and memorable turns along the way.
The movie finds its footing just as Irwin Keyes enters the picture, portraying Wheezy Joe. His reason for being there is rather forced, but nothing in this silly lark makes too much sense. And the payoff with Keyes, Clooney, and Keyes is one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a long, long time.
“Intolerable Cruelty” may not be perfect, but it is ambitious and sometimes very funny. I’m going to assume, like with most of the Coens’ movies, that it will get better with repeated viewings. I hated “The Big Lebowski” the first time I saw it, disliked it only a bit the second time, and my friends have all convinced me that I’ll come around finally with another viewing.
Right now, though, I think “Intolerable Cruelty” is a much better film than “Lebowski.” And I’ve only seen it once.