I’ve been a jury holdout in the case against Joel and Ethan Coen, who are charged with being filmmakers who would rather laugh up their sleeves than reveal their hearts. I can imagine a Barton Fink-ish mogul barking, ”Get me that Coen Brothers Feeling!” and, ZING WHAM, with a spray painting of creamy Roger Deakins cinematography, out rolls another brilliantly enameled, perfectly impermeable, semi- ironic take on some quaint genre or other that younger moviegoers will henceforth think belongs to the wiseacre brothers in the first place: They’re the duo whose previous two time-machine contraptions, ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” and ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, tweaked the traditions of Hollywood Noir and Hollywood Depression Picaresque.
In the past, in movies like ”Fargo” and ”Miller’s Crossing,” I’ve been able to locate the beating if skittery emotional pulse beneath the cool, dry skin of their work. With Intolerable Cruelty, though, something scares me: I cannot detect a heartbeat of feeling, no matter how close I press a stethoscope against the star machinery of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Clooney plays Miles Massey, a Los Angeles matrimonial attorney so slick and bloodless a legal killer as to make Richard Gere’s Billy Flynn in ”Chicago” look like a cream puff. Having invented the ironclad ”Massey pre-nup” as an impenetrable shield against weapons of marital destruction, Miles is a wealthy, jaded man. (He’s so bored and so bred in L.A. that all that fascinates him are his own bleached-to-dazzle teeth, the admiration of which is a dull recurring joke.) Zeta-Jones plays Marylin Rexroth, a serial husband eater (she likes her meat rich) who is equally lethal at her game of divorce-and-conquer. The two cross jungle paths when his legal prowess gets in the way of her handsome settlement from a philandering ninny (Edward Herrmann, ninnying like a workhorse). Marylin vows to get even. Miles vows to tame his shrew.
Although they have frequently had fun in the past at the expense of social and economic disparities, ”Intolerable Cruelty” is the Coens’ most direct confrontation with the comedy of sex. Yet by the filmmakers’ lights, sex is really only about class and money anyway; human relations are for saps. Although Clooney (a returning Coen player who may look to these collaborations as a chance to goof around with his handsome-leading-man image) and Zeta-Jones (a newcomer to Coenville who may look to this role as a chance to parody her own image of high-gloss, expensive glamour) spar with the imitation-arch gestures and line readings of screwballers, there’s a flatness to their routines and repartee that eventually shrivels to mockery. What sideshow fun there is gets divvied up among scene-stealing costars who undoubtedly had a great time on the set. Geoffrey Rush wears an excellently hideous ponytail as a TV producer who does not, to his regret, retain Massey’s services. Billy Bob Thornton pops by in a nifty variation on Texas swagger; and Cedric the Entertainer, off in a little movie all his own, does hilarious things as a private investigator who seems to know more about the battle of the sexes than anyone else in this snide, shallow film.