The conventions of screwball comedy – the rapid-fire banter, the careful repetition of lines of dialogue, the willingness to cross freely and constantly between highbrow and lowbrow gags – play a major role in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. The influence, primarily, is Preston Sturges. His writing, which blended crowd-pleasing slapstick-style hijinks and legitimately high-minded social observations, found its modern heir in the brothers. They skewer like he skewered. They put their characters through the wringer like he put his characters through the wringer. And while their pictures tend to lack the sex appeal that seeped from the syllables of Sturges’ dialogue, they make up for it by matching his oft-unsung propensity for philosophical musings.
For the most part, though, the brothers have stayed out of the actual screwball genre, away from the type of movie that made Sturges’ name. Hallmarks associated with those films show up throughout their filmography, of course: think of the lyrically delivered Minnesota-isms throughout FARGO, the rapid-fire banter rifling through RAISING ARIZONA, the repetitious images and cycles that define A SERIOUS MAN and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or the way that TRUE GRIT has Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon firing off loquacious insults ten times as often as they fire their rifles. Yet only twice have the brothers Coen crafted films that actually fulfill the standards of the screwball genre.
The first of the two was THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, set in the late 50s, right around when Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder were making the last ‘true’ screwball comedies. There’s some HIS GIRL FRIDAY and some Capra in HUDSUCKER, mixed along with the spirit of Sturges, and it’s all backed by some particularly ambitious visuals. Baroque and menacingly dark, PROXY is at once a tribute to and a subversion of genre standards.
The Coen’s second attempt at making an earnest screwball picture remains one of their most underappreciated efforts, if not one of their best: the George Clooney/Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. The picture, like many Sturges entries, revolves around a tit-for-tat courtship between two characters who can’t help but lead themselves into sexual disaster: here, between Clooney’s gleefully idiotic divorce lawyer Miles Massey, a rock star in his field, and Zeta-Jones’ Marilyn Hamilton-Rexroth-Doyle, a serial bride racking up big-ticket alimonies as quickly as she can get rings on her fingers.
By default, we can’t really say that CRUELTY is a true screwball comedy film. That genre – we’re talking films like THE LADY EVE, CHRISTMAS IN JULY, BRINGING UP BABY, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and many other sprightly, acerbically-scripted girl-chases-boy-or-vice-versa comedies produced between the 30s and the early 60s – was inextricably tied to the era that birthed it. Those pictures were indivisible from the events of the first half of the 20th century, as well as from the limits imposed by the Production Code. Screwball comedies were manically upbeat trifles, originally tuned directly to a society reeling from the Depression. They were also chaste films built almost entirely around sex appeal. They were defined by those two contradictions, and as such can never really be replicated in contemporary filmmaking.
So what INTOLERABLE CRUELTY does, instead of trying to replicate or subvert, is update the screwball comedy – and it does it without deleting any of its essential elements. The Coen’s keep the standards passed down from Sturges: the ridiculous names (Thorstenson Gieselensen!) the larger than life personas (Billy Bob Thornton as the slick-talking heir to a Texas oil fortune!) and the lunatic plotting (revolving attempts at murder made by a hitman named Wheezy Joe!) But they update the sexual politics.
Sturges’ was a moralist whose films often cast a critical eye toward selfish behavior of all kinds – but most often within relationships. The Coen’s carry his concerns into a contemporary setting; satirizing the ubiquity of partner-swapping by presenting a world where divorce is more of a sport than sin; where the appearance of love is occasionally fleeting, never everlasting, and is most often just part of a strategy for improving personal finances. Like Sturges, they’re using the framework of a heightened tone to call shenanigans, on a society they’ve often suggested has lost sight of its own ridiculousness.
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY being a fair bit less elusive than the Coen’s best pictures, offers a strong display of their moral proclivities. It’s also very funny. Still, it’s not one of their great works: There’s a sense of slightness to it, as well as a blandness to the compositions; two qualities devoid from all but a couple other entries in their canon. It’ll never be considered one of their defining pictures.
Yet the picture remains an important entry in their filmography, representing the purest distillation of their obsession with a very specific style of comedy; one that descended from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and was then massaged into a rigidly defined genre of cinema throughout the 30s and 40s. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is no masterpiece, but it’s a fitting tribute to the type of picture that helped the Coen’s find their voices in the first place.