Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty is a wonderful movie. But beneath that wonderful Coen brothers romantic fantasia lie the rotting remains of the really terrible movie that the inchoate Intolerable Cruelty must have been. The remains of that stinker are like the Tell-Tale Heart in the Edgar Allan Poe story - every so often, you hear the thump-thump, thump-thump, that tells you the Coens have buried something under the floorboards.

I don't buy into the auteur theory of cinema. As William Goldman points out in Adventures in the Screen Trade, there are so very many things that can go horribly wrong in a movie, there are so many people involved in the creative process, that to ascribe it all to one eminence grise with jodphurs and a loudhailer is stretching things a bit.

This creative process is visible in Intolerable Cruelty. This is the first movie that the Coens have not scripted themselves, and one of the movie's fascinations is to see how the Coens have taken a so-so formulaic script and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into Coenville, that strange cinematic space that's populated with Barton Finks, Marge Gundersons, Ulysses McGills, and of course, Dudes.

That's the joy of a Coen brothers movie - the Coens take you to a place that only exists in their heads, meaning that when you return to the reality of the world outside the cinema you know more about it after seeing what things are like in a world that is not real, a world that is Coenville.

In their other movies, because the movies were scripted and owed their genesis entirely to the Coens, the traces of the real world never intruded. In Intolerable Cruelty, the real world has left traces - the thump-thump, thump-thump of the Tell Tale Heart is the remaining clunky dialogue or the awkward or cliched mis-en-scenes. But the rest of the movie is either coated in Coenville, or the Coens drag the scenario so far into Coenville that we forgive them the etches of mortality.

What is the essence of Coenville in Intolerable Cruelty? The guitar-playing priest and Billy Bob Thornton's Howard D. Doyle are all elements that can only have been introduced by the Coens, reaching their zenith in Herb Myerson, senior partner. What are the traces of the boring, the mundane, the cliched, the real? That awful Massey Pre-Nup McGuffin, the lazy plotting, the awful moments of less than pedestrian dialogue.

Can we see the joins? Yes, sometimes. Consider George Clooney's speech to the lawyers' convention in Las Vegas. The speech is awful, while Clooney punching the air at the end, with those goggling manic eyes he first used in O Brother, is wonderful. The mundane, the Coen.

Mention of Clooney is a reminder of how much of a collaborative effort film-making is. With any two leads other than Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film could have sunk to depths so deep that not even the Coens could save it. With these two stars, and I choose my words carefully, it can't go wrong. Clooney is in the pantheon of the Hollywood greats, and, as for Catherine Zeta-Jones, she is a woman for whom luminous could have been invented. As well as being A Star, she can act too, as she showed in Traffic and so magnificently in Chicago.

Intolerably Cruelty is eminently qualified to stand in the Coen cannon - not as sublime as The Big Lebowski or O Brother, but a real return to form after the hideously disappointing Man Who Wasn't There.