Chief among the pleasures of the new Joel and Ethan Coen comedy Intolerable Cruelty (Universal) is the privilege of watching two self-infatuated, perennial Vanity Fair cover subjects—George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones—try to psych each other out with their respective gorgeousness. With four brown eyes like those, that act goes a long way, and the dialogue (the script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone was rewritten by the Coens) is of the anything-you-can-quip-I-can-quip-better school: pingpong exchanges that leave you desperately trying to modulate your giggles so you don’t miss a syllable.
He plays Miles Massey, a hot-dog Beverly Hills divorce lawyer and author of a famed, no-loophole prenuptial agreement; she’s a (I’m sorry for the tired, sexist parlance, but there’s no other word) gold digger who has the bad luck to face him in court, where he represents her husband. He leaves her penniless; she vows revenge. She has some advantages: those flared lips; those almond eyes; those silken curves; that mouthwatering cleavage. His career—and life—has rested on the assumption that love is a sucker’s delusion, but one look at Zeta-Jones and Cupid’s arrow cleaves his heretofore armored heart in twain.
The credit sequence is Cupids and arrows—Victorian cutouts—and it’s fabulous; and so is the movie’s first half-hour and change. You know you’re breathing rarefied screwball air when Clooney, in a fancy restaurant, orders steak for Zeta-Jones, looks her up and down, says, “I assume you’re a carnivore”; and she meets his eyes, drops her voice into her chest, and purrs, “Oh, Mr. Massey, you have no idea.” But the Coens have directed Intolerable Cruelty broadly—not broadly-with-a-spin, as in the hillbilly-esque RaisingArizona (1987)—but broadly-with-an-elbow-to-the-ribs. Comic effervescence is one part pressure to one part air, but for the first time in their careers, the Coens don’t allow their jokes to breathe.
After marvelous ensemble efforts like Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), it’s depressing to see a Coens movie in which the supporting cast is so wasted. Every actor—Geoffrey Rush as a cuckolded producer, Cedric the Entertainer as a gonzo video-surveillance guy, Edward Herrmann as a philandering zillionaire, Billy Bob Thornton as a garrulous Texas oilman—gets a big entrance and exit but little in the way of a middle. (A hit man named Wheezy Joe, played by Irwin Keyes, does have maybe the best exit of any walk-on goon ever.)
The glibness exhausts you, and the Coens are emotionally so far outside their subject that Intolerable Cruelty is finally no different from most of the other dumb slapstick spoofs that pass for screwball comedy these days. The reason that many of us still treasure The Lady Eve (1941) and Adam’s Rib (1949) after 50-plus years is that the people who wrote them were serious about exploring the issues of constancy and trust, and the jokes allowed them to raise the stakes in ways that most noncomic dramatists don’t dare. The Coens are too armored by irony to take those kinds of risks. Cupid would need a rocket launcher.