It’s an interesting proposition, a romantic comedy starring Hollywood ‘A’-listers, written and directed by the Coen Brothers. What would these masters of generic subversion do with such a broad palette of obligatory tropes? Something intensely stylish, and fiendishly clever, no doubt. However, their previous mainstream comedy, also starring Coens fan George Clooney, might serve as something of a warning: stylish it was, particularly in visual terms, but in terms of its narrative structure and symbolic landscape it was decidedly conventional.
Intolerable Cruelty was to be the Coens’ first movie as writers-for-hire, but the production had a fairly convoluted gestation (as mainstream Hollywood flicks usually do), and they ended up being hired to direct it too. This is not their usual thing. Most of their work starts with a creative impulse, for which they then seek funding, retaining final cut, and everyone understands they’re involved in a vehicle for the brothers’ cinematic interests. In this case, investors wanted a movie made to capitalise on the box-office potential of Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, not something that pulled the rug out from under its audience’s expectations.
I can’t honestly be bothered to think hard enough about it to work out whether this film is the way it is because Joel and Ethan were creatively inhibited by the circumstances of its production, or whether they just wanted some money and did what they thought you do to make a mainstream rom-com, or what. Clearly, the Roger Deakins cinematography must be as wonderful as ever, but I can’t say I noticed it, or the editing, because for most of the film I was yawning so widely that I couldn’t see past my moustache.
Whether you like rom-coms or not, they have a history, and they have an established set of generic conventions, within which a writer and/or director who understands them can produce scenes, characters and dialogue which can be worth looking at. When Harry Met Sally is an annoying movie, but the chemistry between Meg Ryan and Billy Chrystal is undeniable, and other examples of the type contain some of the fastest, sharpest dialogue ever committed to (virtual) celluloid. As far as I can make out, the Coens thought they could rely on the star quality that Clooney and Zeta-Jones brought to the set, and that like old-time movie stars they would automatically have our sympathy.
There are actually some good scenes in this film. They’re comedy scenes. There’s a courtroom scene that had me in stitches, largely thanks to Jonathan Hadary’s scene-stealing Baron Krauss von Espy, and there are other very funny moments. The Coens can do comedy, as they have repeatedly demonstrated, but laughs do not make a rom-com. Characterisation makes a romantic drama of any stripe: a plausible story about the attraction between people requires us to have a plausible sense of what those people are like, but the two principals here are among the least developed characters in the film. The Coens repeatedly attempt to engineer scenes in which Clooney and Zeta-Jones can ‘fizz’, but all they manage to do is look pretty. Simply put, both characters are arseholes, the sort of people I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire, and the script fails to make any argument as to why we should give a fuck about them or what happens to them. I didn’t, and consequently the whole movie was, for me, a total wipe.