The Coen brothers clearly have a thing about genre. Although none of their previous films has been a straightforward genre piece (perhaps gangster epic Miller’s Crossing  comes closest), they all engage with genre in some way, sometime mangling genres together, as with their hilarious ‘slacker noir’ movie The Big Lebowski (1998), or, as with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), creating worlds and narratives so vividly that they feel like they should be genre pieces even if they’re in a genre of one.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was their last attempt at an out-and-out comedy, and also their only previous attempt to make a genuinely mainstream film – it was even produced by 80s action king Joel Silver (subsequently responsible for The Matrix ). It was considered a failure at the time, though perhaps looks better in retrospect – its attempt to meld the spirits of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges into a 30s-style fast-talking screwball comedy never quite comes together, but it’s still a treat for the discerning fan. Audiences didn’t think so at the time, though, and the film failed to cross over to a mainstream audience (the Coens would have to wait until Fargo  for that). Looking back, it’s not too hard to figure out why: despite its humour, it’s a bizarre, baroque film that never quite manages to be more than a long-running joke about the screwball style.
It is in this context that Intolerable Cruelty arrives. As the (terrible) posters make clear, it is a romantic comedy, or to be precise a battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy, in which George Clooney’s legendary divorce attorney Miles Massey (so good he has an iron-clad pre-nuptial agreement named after him) finds himself acting for rich philanderer Max Rexroth. He is being sued for divorce by his gold-digging wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but despite on-camera evidence of Rexroth’s infidelity, Miles’s impeccable courtroom skills leave Marylin penniless. She’s back on her feet before long, marrying an oil tycoon, but Miles hasn’t recovered from their meeting and begins to pine after her. But could two such cynical people ever find happiness together?
Great romantic comedies have to set up an improbable couple and then throw obstacles in their way, and it’s a bit lame if the obstacles are purely external. Accordingly, Intolerable Cruelty takes the traditional route of having their central couple hate each other at the start, although the big obstacle in their case is trust: in the heightened world of Beverley Hills, could a gold-digger and a divorce lawyer ever really believe that each other’s motives were pure? One of the reasons that this film is such a success is that the Coens pull off the rare trick of convincing us that Miles and Marylin really are that cynical, and then convincing us they could fall in love, a trick that hasn’t been done so well in a Hollywood movie since Groundhog Day (1993).
It’s also worth mentioning that Intolerable Cruelty is a really funny movie – one of the Coens’ funniest. The performances are all spot-on: Clooney and the Coens are an excellent fit, and Zeta-Jones is never better than when playing cold-hearted deceivers. Like all their best work, it is full of pithy, quotable dialogue and beautifully drawn minor characters (like hired thug Wheezy Joe, and stand-up comedian Cedric the Entertainer’s private investigator Gus Petch, who is obsessed with ‘nailing people’s asses’), and more laugh-out-loud moments than any other mainstream movie released this year.
The downside, which has attracted much comment from Coens obsessives, is that it is unavoidably the case that Intolerable Cruelty is self-consciously mainstream, and accordingly does have rather less ‘Coensiness’ than any of their other films. Perhaps it’s best not to think of it as ‘the new Coens movie’, in which respect it nestles comfortably in the second rank, but rather to view it as the Coens’ first big-star Hollywood product. It may seem a rather retrograde step, but the Coens have succeeded in making a mainstream genre film that is squarely of the genre to which it belongs, rather than about it, and in doing so they have made one of the best and funniest films that genre has seen in recent years. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.