In this week’s re-view, Betsy Cass throws down the gauntlet and essentially declares Intolerable Cruelty “the last great Coen Brothers film,” raising questions about how we assess the chronology of an artist’s work. Them’s fightin’ words, and we wouldn’t have it any other way at TEN YEARS AGO.
I’d love to say that Intolerable Cruelty is the last great Coen Brothers film. It misses the mark just a bit, but that’s not going to stop me from making the argument in part anyway. When it came out ten years ago, I recall the sense that it was the beginning of the end for the Coens. Intolerable Cruelty was deemed a tepid entry at best into their oeuvre. Falling on the heels of the bizarrely underrated at the time O Brother Where Art Thou?, some thought they had run out of filmmaking steam and might never recover. In the opinion of most critics and fans, that has not turned out to be true. For me, who was doubtful of their demise, it was the last Coen Brothers film I could watch without having any trace of suspicion about its quality.
It’s safe to say my reaction to the film has changed less in ten years than my reaction to the filmmakers. While that doesn’t affect my enjoyment much directly, it does affect how I view the movie. It’s literally been ten years since I watched it. My father and I saw it in the theatre with a fairly robust audience present. While neither of us thought it was an artistic triumph, we were both a little surprised at the sometimes harsh reactions it received. We liked it, you see. So did the other patrons. We laughed. Both of us deemed it an entirely enjoyable way to spend an hour-and-a-half. While I thought increased age might reveal new levels of comedy, the second viewing felt very much like the same movie as the first. If anything, the film is not quite as good as I longed for it to be, now that I know what follows it.
I am slightly loathe to reference Chuck Klosterman, but he and Noel Gallagher recently had a very interesting conversation about the order of an artist’s work. It’s a given that we are always comparing one piece of their work to another. For most artists, especially ones that are contemporary to us, we are also applying a specific chronological comparison. Gallagher questions how this aspect of comparison alters the way we perceive the quality of a piece of work. He wonders what the reaction to his latest record and his first record would be if his discography were backwards. He supposes, and I tend to agree, that his most recent work would be seen a lot more favorably. I think the same is true of Intolerable Cruelty.
Imagine if this was the first piece the Coens had presented to the world. What would people say? I’m guessing they’d call it an incredibly fun, off-kilter comedy. They’d mention its quick wit and the sense of fun that permeates it. They’d admire the surreal vignettes that used to be known as Coen signatures and take note of the way it both references and skewers some golden era Hollywood comedies. They would certainly call it assured. When compared with Raising Arizona, which is considered a Coen classic, it would still hold up. It would serve as an appropriate stepping stone to dramatic and comedic masterpieces like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. But if it doesn’t quite measure up to what came before it, how does it stand up to what came after?
While things got much worse with the follow-up film The Ladykillers, most would now call it a bump in the road before the Coens got back on track again. I consider it the end of an era and the final movie that you could call “a Coen Brothers film” and still have it mean something. It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what exactly the Coen touch was, but it’s always been easy to spot when it appears. I think a large part of it was a sense of glee, a convivial love of the worlds and the characters of their films. That all seemed to change irreversibly when The Ladykillers was released. The film had a clear sense of contempt for its characters. This problem did creep into earlier films, including the lesser work The Hudsucker Proxy and especially Barton Fink (which I loathe, so, hey, at least I’m consistent). This contempt and mean-spiritedness now seems to be the overarching feature of their work. The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man (the only movie I’ve ever ended up walking out of because after 90 minutes I realized literally nothing could happen to make me care about the last 15) all border on unwatchable. They aren’t cruelly clever. They are just cruel, unfunny messes. I fear the same fate for the upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis, whose trailers are downright depressing. No Country for Old Men and True Grit suffer less from this problem (they are not immune) but are films that I feel like could have been made just as well, if not better, by other filmmakers. The golden Coen era is over, never to return.
If we were to compare Intolerable Cruelty with only what came after it, the film would easily be the best comedy the Coens made. It would be the only film of the bunch that felt fresh or fun. I believe critics would be asking how such original filmmakers got bogged down in such overwrought, misguided projects. How did they lose their whimsy and their sense of joy? When did they start hating making movies?
I didn’t view Intolerable Cruelty as a disappointment upon its release and I don’t view it that way now. It does not collapse under the weight of being the last of its kind. Maybe it doesn’t shine as brightly as other entries into the Coen canon, but it has its own merits that are not to be overlooked. It just may contain the finest comedic performance of George Clooney’s career. While I originally thought he was great, I didn’t realize the full extent of his physical comedy brilliance until the second time around. As much as you can while playing a suave, sexy lawyer, he gives a remarkably egoless performance that is comically unflattering in the best possible ways. Edward Hermann, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush and Paul Adelstein also deliver classic Coen comedy with broad performances. Like in much of the Coens’ other work, some characters are on the borderline of abject, but manage to stay on the right side. The film also does a wonderful job of paying tribute to the idea of a Cary Grant romantic comedy without being beholden to it. Their version is of course stranger and sharper, which allows it be enjoyable for someone like me who isn’t a fan of the original genre.
The only major flaw that seems to have exposed itself over time is the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones. I didn’t question it back then, probably because she was on her hot streak. In retrospect, she seems flat compared to the rest of the cast. But even if she doesn’t match the rest of the cast’s level, she does seem to be having fun. Everyone seems to be having fun. As far as I can tell, it’s the last film the Coen Brothers had fun making. It’s definitely the last movie of theirs I had fun watching. While it’s not a perfect end to their legacy of quirk, neither is it cause for a tarnished reputation.
Why did they change the lyrics to “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel at the beginning of the film? This has always bugged me. I thought it might be because they weren’t allowed to say whore in a PG-13 movie, but seeing as Geoffrey Rush starts yelling the word a few minutes later, that’s clearly not the case.
In the ten years since the film came out, I have never forgotten the acronym NOMAN (National Organization for Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide). Ah ten years ago, back when we had to remember things instead of Google them.
I’ve never seen an American in a movie hold a gun the way Geoffrey Rush does. Plenty of Europeans, but something about it is too wristy for US folk.
“Objection: Strangling the witness.” “I’ll allow it.”
Calling someone Pollyanna really is an amazing insult.
Did I just name drop every Coen Brothers film? Nope, I left out Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There. You’re welcome.