The Coen brothers, working for the first time from a script developed by others, have taken the plunge into the shark-infested waters of the Hollywood comedy, and have by and large come out unscathed. Not triumphant, but these days we can be grateful for the merely good. They are fortunate in their leads, with George Clooney playing off of his matinée-idol looks as though he were descended from "O Brother"'s Ulysses Everett McGill, and the statuesque Catherine Zeta-Jones, using that rich alto voice as an instrument of domination with serene confidence, as his opponent/love object/law client.
Miles Massey is the best divorce lawyer in Los Angeles. His 'Massey Pre-Nup' is absolutely unbreakable, though hundreds have tried and failed in court. We meet Miles, in the person of Clooney, as he is at the dentist getting his teeth so white they could serve as a lighthouse beacon. Shortly he will represent Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), an adulterous husband, as he fights to keep his wronged wife Marylin (Zeta-Jones) from bankrupting him, by surprising Marylin in court with his star witness Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary in a lusciously fey cameo), the concierge at a Swiss hotel to whom Marylin had confided her need to find a rich husband - a confidence that wrecks her case because the Baron had then introduced her to Rex.
But Marylin is so statuesquely beautiful, so cold, so completely controlled in every way, so committed to finding and milking her husbands, each in his turn, that the bored and self-absorbed Miles is soon hopelessly in love with her ("Are you a carnivore?" Miles asks her at dinner. "You have no idea," she says.) And then she surprises him by marrying a Texas oil billionaire (Billy Bob Thornton) and asking Miles to prepare his famous Massey Pre-Nup for them. Things only go from bad to worse for Miles, who is a guest at the wedding, but his unshakeable hubris carries him past any crisis, though panting after Marylin is not his best tactic.
There is more, including a hired killer with asthma who makes a fatal mistake while on the job; and Geoffrey Rush as a cuckolded husband who comes home to find his wife in bed with the pool man, though they have no pool. All of which is, or should be, wonderful fun; but the film has two weaknesses that hold us back from giving ourselves to it. First, the character of Miles is curiously unfocused in the writing. Is he character or caricature? The film wobbles uncertainly between them, not wanting to lose either image, and ends by trying, and failing, to be both.
The second problem is the classic one of how one shoots comedy. Unless the wit is Wildean or Shavian, that is, dependent only on what is said and how it is said, without action or movement, allowing us to watch in closeup, as it were, as barbs and epigrams are traded, filming comedy requires that the audience be kept at a bit of a distance. If you recall Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday," where Hawks had as his leads the gorgeous Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, he rarely used closeups except to make a point, usually a character's reaction. He knew we knew what his stars looked like, so he could focus on what they were doing instead. In a story like "Intolerable Cruelty," so similar to "His Girl Friday," closeups can be the death of wit, and here they undercut the humor. We want to laugh out loud, but director Joel Coen cuts off the laugh before we get it out, because his closeups take us out of the situation - the point of the scene - and make us look instead at the person. We already know his stars are beautiful; we want to see how they act, not how they look. Nevertheless, in a year as dry filmically as this one, "Intolerable Cruelty" is a refreshing shower and we are grateful.