Monday, June 21, 2004

Video: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The UK release of THE LADYKILLERS has David Thomson and John Patterson asking the same question: whither the Coen Brothers? They both hail THE BIG LEBOWSKI as one of the great cult films, but feel the brothers’ last few projects have been beneath them. The argument prompted me to revisit this effort, which I’d come to think of as my least favorite of their films.

Not that it didn’t have its admirers. Elvis Mitchell, late of the New York Times, called it a minor classic. On second viewing, I can see why he felt that way. George Clooney plays L.A.’s most successful divorce attorney, lost in the throes of a midlife crisis. After thwarting the carefully laid plans of gold digger Catherine Zeta-Jones, he becomes obsessed with her. It’s a dynamic worthy of Preston Sturges and the brothers know it, filling the screen with the kind of loony supporting players the master specialized in: a dimwitted Texas oil baron played by Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer’s sleazy private eye.

The project began as a rewrite gig for the boys, which may explain its half-formed quality; it’s as if whole chunks of the earlier scripts lie undigested in theirs, and the third act feels rushed. It makes it difficult to appreciate the precision of the movie’s plot, which is rather ingenious. Another draft and this could have been the commercial breakthrough for the Coens that executive producer Brian Grazer obviously wanted it to be.

I’m so attuned to the Coens’ wavelength that a slight film like this still strikes me as funny, even when the humor veers away from character and into silliness. Clooney gives the great lost performance of 2003. He’s devised a whole new approach to playing the romantic comedy lead, firmly in control and yet desperately hoping to be swept up by forces he can’t understand. Zeta-Jones is able to do the showstopping walk through a casino that Julia Roberts failed to carry off in that other Clooney vehicle partially set in Las Vegas, OCEAN’S ELEVEN.

CRUELTY makes it plain that the Coens love talk. Obtuse self-justification and jargon abound here as in so many of their other movies. But my favorite of their films are the ones where the protagonist says very little (MILLER’S CROSSING, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE). They’ve done two films in a row now with garrulous leads. Maybe they should enjoy the silence next time out.

Don’t miss the DVD extra Paul Adelstein in ‘Everybody Eats Berries.’ This series of alternate takes of a single line reading reaches dizzying heights of absurdity only to transcend them and become strangely beautiful, like a piece of atonal music.

Movie: Hootenanny Hoot (1963)

TCM blows the dust off this oddity from producer Sam Katzman, who cranked out low-budgeters based on whatever the kids were digging at the time. Thus explaining the title of another Katzman classic, DON’T KNOCK THE TWIST. He went on to make the ill-advised attempt to turn Roy Orbison into an Elvis-style movie star in THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (1968), which is actually a spy drama set during the Civil War. Sam, you are missed.

Ur-Baldwin Peter Breck, star of Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, plays a TV producer who quits the rat race and heads for the ends of the earth only to get as far as Missouri. He stumbles onto the happenin’ folk music scene and decides to mount a show. One that’s about America, that has “none of that coffeehouse jazz with a lot of beatniks flopping around.” Ultimately he produces the most successful 17-minute special in network history. You couldn’t have watched this movie straight in 1963, but after A MIGHTY WIND it’s impossible. We get multiple numbers from The Brothers Four and Sheb Wooley but only one from Johnny Cash. And the music isn’t particularly well-staged; Judy Henske powers through a murder ballad while wearing a two-piece bathing suit and sitting on a picnic table. For some reason Breck smokes a pipe throughout, which he handles like a loaded gun.