INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) – Cruel, maybe; intolerable, hardly

image

Ever since I fell in love with Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedy Raising Arizona (1987), I’ve been waiting for them to do another all-out farce. And God bless ’em, it took them only 16 years. Intolerable Cruelty is the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a legendary divorce lawyer called upon to help a rich man (Edward Herrmann) divorce his golddigging wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). I hasten not to divulge any of the movie’s surprises. Suffice to say, a prolonged and very verbose battle of the sexes ensues.

That alone almost makes the movie worth watching. After being mentally assaulted by recent movies with totally moronic main characters, what a pleasure to hear intelligent dialogue between intelligent people — even if both of them are the biggest schemers you could ask for. Clooney, in particular, has long, leisurely takes where he delivers pages of dialogue, and he relishes every opportunity.

Granted, not all of the jokes are Mensa-level. (Some of the earthiest laughs come from the always reliable Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye way too willing to dig up dirt for his clients.) But a critic once made the un-academic distinction between stupid comedy done stupid, and silly comedy done intelligently. The first kind we all know about, because that’s most of the bodily-function comedies that come out these days. Far more difficult to pull off is comedy based on normal people’s reactions to outrageous circumstances. Intolerable Cruelty provides a wealth of that.

As an example, I cite the movie’s climactic scene, in which someone labors to prevent a murder and someone gets killed anyway. A subject as inherently unfunny as murder is the acid test; if not pulled off properly, nothing falls flatter. I can say only that the scene’s punchline had me laughing until I cried.

And the timing of this movie’s performers is never off. Clooney, Zeta-Jones, Cedric, and Billy Bob Thornton (as a self-loving actor)…they have bells on their toes. I wish more comedies were as tolerable as Intolerable Cruelty.

Advertisements

RAISING ARIZONA (1987) – It’s a classic, or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona!

1

The films of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are not for everybody. But if you’re in the mood for a no-holds-barred, breakneck farce, you could do far worse than the Coens’ Raising Arizona.

image (1)

This movie was early on in the careers of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, but for my money, they’ve rarely been better. Cage narrates the story of H.I. McDonough (“Call me Hi”), a “recidivist” robber of convenience stores. Hunter is Ed (short for Edwina), the police officer who books Hi for prison after each of his robbery sprees. And the intro that sets up their story is one of the funniest movie prologues ever.

Ed and Hi slowly fall for each other, causing Hi to quit his life of crime. They marry but find out that Ed is too “barren” to have children. When they read a news report of local furniture baron Nathan Arizona and his wife having quintuplets, Ed and Hi plot to take one of the babies for their own, rationalizing that the Arizonas already have “more than they can handle.”

Granted, this doesn’t sound like a premise for belly laughs. But you would not have reckoned with the Coens’ far-from-barren imaginations. The cinematography alone — by future director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) — should earn Raising Arizona‘s place in movie history, culminating in a chase scene that just about kills you with laughter.

And there are memorable supporting characters, all perfectly cast. First, there’s John Goodman and William Forsythe as Hi’s fellow cons. (Their first scene is a beautifully done prison escape, with Goodman emerging from muck like a revived dinosaur.) There’s also Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as the last parents on Earth who should be advising Hi and Ed on child-rearing, and Randall “Tex” Cobb as a bounty hunter so nasty that even his boots are hairy.

In these days of gross-out fests, there’s something almost brave about a comedy that takes this many chances and pulls all of them off. As one Los Angeles reviewer put it, “Imagination run amok in a Hollywood comedy — it’s about time.”