January 08, 2009

Intolerable Cruelty

The intolerable cruelty of the Coen Brother's film is on the surface easy to believe in: it is the intolerable cruelty of hypocrisy. The film is about what we might call the business of divorce: George Clooney sits on one side of that business as a lawyer who is the cleverest practitioner of the hostile break up, Catherine Zeta Jones sits on the other side as a woman committed to getting ahead in the world through her sex appeal and her callous willingness to leave husbands as soon as she can reap a reward from them. The two of them fence deliciously through the film- but over the film hovers this reality, that no-one believes what they say and furthermore no-one's actions conform to their statements. The assumption is that if you say I love you- you mean I'm going to divorce you in three months and take you for all the money I can get. In some sense Zeta Jones and her coterie define marriage as a very expensive form of prostitution- where divorce is the payoff for three months of a young woman having sex with an older man. In a sense the film is about whether that understanding of marriage is true or not- or whether it is true in every case as it is evidently (in the world of the film and perhaps outside) true in some cases. The problem is whether the film ever convincingly addresses or answers that question- I, as this review will show, am not sure that it does.

The counter argument to the cynical case against marriage is made by Clooney and Zeta Jones's relationship. They fall in love and ultimately, with some moments of tension, they marry and genuinely seem to disavow the option of divorce. That means something but the problem is that the meaning of that statement does not come with as much zest as does the cynical attack on marriage. The latter is made wittily through humour- a point impressed by the Coen brothers' contempt for their characters and its a point that everyone can enjoy. Clooney and Zeta Jones are at their most conventional when they make the conventional argument- that marriage is a commitment which requires you to stop identifying your selfish interests and start identifying your interests as a couple, as a unit- and thus they are at their most uninteresting. They look into each other's eyes, they embrace, they even profess earnestness. The problem with the couple is that they lose their sense of humour when they fall in love- contrast that to the great age of Hollywood comedies that the Coens wish us to remember and the problem is that whereas Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell could do love with humour, the Coens can't.

Ultimately the failure of the film is the fact that the bad guys are so much more charismatic than the good guys. Catherine Zeta Jones establishes her image as the sleek sexy charmer of the first two thirds of the film, George Clooney as the smooth manipulator of men and morals, both can't quite convey the enjoyment of being in love. Both of them feel existential doubts- but they relish their evil behaviour so much that their existential doubts don't really make sense. I think in part the failure here is that the Coens make love too prim or proper- too filled with vows of eternal sanctity- too legal ultimately- and less filled with the laughter and silliness that the emotion is actually about. Clooney and Zeta Jones aren't allowed to enjoy their romance- just like most couples on film are not allowed to enjoy their romances- swooning is in and smiles are out. That failure is an interesting one because it points in some sense to a wider failure in the world of cinema- a failure that I don't think the Coens alone are guilty of- which is that it is incredibly difficult to portray the happy ending where the girl and the guy (or whatever other combination of sexes you fancy) end up walking off into the sunset hand in hand. Making that interesting is not easy- and when your film rides on the contrast between that and biting, sarcastic, cynical, witty opposition to love you have a problem if you are making the romantic case.

This might seem a harsh criticism. The majority of the film does not concern the case for love- but concerns an ironic depreciation of that case. In a sense you could even argue that the ending is itself ironic- but I see no particular reason from what I saw on screen to make that point. Rather what I think we have here is a film that could make one point- that the marriage market in Los Angeles is amusingly cynical and yet profoundly stupid- and then tries to make another point about love vs commercialised and prostituted marriage and fails to make either because of a clumsy ending. I enjoyed the jokes, I found Clooney convincing and amusing and the same goes for Zeta Jones but the whole film failed. The whole film failed because the ending failed- because in the end the Coens couldn't make the film dark enough so that the ending would match the beggining, and couldn't get to the heart of romantic comedy where love is amusing. Instead what we have got is a bit of a mess- with the repartee and wit of the first three quarters and then the instant end cute. This is a four paragraph way of me saying that this film- despite its good performances and nice contrivances- doesn't make sense and for a film made by such film makers, with such intelligence, that for me is a problem.


stacy said...

this was a terrible movie! i am glad the coen brothers have come a long way.

Gracchi said...

They did good work before!

I think it was an idea that just didn't come off- strangely had they worked it out I think it could have- but the story just didn't work- Zeta Jones and Clooney could have carried off the romantic comedy forties thing, but ultimately didn't because the Coens didn't design the movie well enough.

John Lancaster said...

There was something about the self-deprecating humour of the George Clooney character and the apparent seriousness of CZJ immoral mission to extract money from her hapless husbands that made this movie rise above the mediocre. I always think that the Coens do not want to provoke the majority of their audiences too far into profound thought, but leaving this avenue open to those prone to analytical critisism.