- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
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Current Rating 7.2/10 | 293 Votes
Produced by Ethan Coen, Bran Grazer.
Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Duffy, Jonathan Hadary.
With a light touch for the darkly comic the Coen Brothers have pulled off another laugh-out-loud comedy set in modern day Los Angeles and satirising marriage, divorce, divorce lawyers and the crucial role played by the ‘Pre-Nup’. The satire is brilliant because it depicts (Los Angeles) reality in only a slightly over-the-top fashion. The characters are strong and real enough that we want them to get what they deserve – for good or ill - and are disappointed when they don’t. But the disappointment is slight because ultimately the characters are so superficial.
Geoffrey Rush plays a day-time TV show producer Donovan Donaly who discovers his wife having an affair with a pool man. Happening to have his Polaroid camera handy, he manages to record the subsequent violent assault and injuries to himself by his wife when she defends her lover by bashing Donovan’s head in with his Day-time TV Achievement Award. However injured and innocent, Donovan ends up washed up and broke after his wife hires suave divorce lawyer Miles Massey (George Clooney), whose cavalier treatment of the truth has the one purpose of securing a maximum settlement for his client regardless of the facts, naturally adding to his own considerable wealth at the same time.
Most of this happens before the opening credits where Elvis Presley singing ‘Suspicious Minds’ is the somehow appropriate backdrop to Victorian cardboard cut-outs of Cupids and unsuspecting lovers. So, artificiality and paper-thin sentimentality are the currency for marital contracts where the Valentine is replaced by a pre-nup and intimacy and trust are only proved by ripping that pre-nup to pieces.
Miles’ next client is philandering husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) whose wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) greets the PI’s video evidence of his infidelity with satisfaction. It is her passport to wealth, independence and freedom, so she thinks. Unfortunately for her, Miles merely regards such a case as a challenge and uses the same PI (Cedric the Entertainer) to obtain information illegally using an interesting element Miles calls the ‘Tenzing Norgay’. After a court case where he eyes her like a predator with an unsuspecting prey and brings in a traitor from her past, she too, ends up with nothing.
But Marylin is a match for Miles and has resources, if not wealth, to plan a comeback which, when we realise the extent of it, is utterly devastating.
The movie probably could have been carried on the strength of the chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones alone, whose characters are involved in a fierce battle of wits and yet belong together. Apart from both being stunningly charismatic, they are both calculating and manipulative, adept in persuasive wit and with literary quotations cocked at twelve paces. Despite the gloss of their civilised facade however, these two are matched like a cobra and a mongoose. They manage to get us on their side simply because in the unscrupulous superficiality of their LA environment, with its focus on wealth and appearances, they are survivors using their wits and resources extremely cleverly. In addition, both characters are accustomed to getting what they want easily, and when they reach a level of bored dissatisfaction with this, have a chance to evolve to espouse the values they have heretofore been exploiting in others more naïve than they. It’s a neat plot reversal.
Some stand-out comic performances match the two leads. Billy Bob Thornton is his southern best as Howard Doyle the Texas oil tycoon and has a hilarious, punning one-liner which is worth the price of admission alone. Cedric the Entertainer as Gus Petch, unscrupulous PI, is another complete character in his own universe whose ‘I’m gonna nail your ass’ becomes the catch phrase in a ghastly and all too possible daytime TV show cashing in on all those hours of clandestine videotapes.
There’s a wonderful, totally absurd wordplay exchange reminiscent of the Marx Brothers in a courtroom between Miles, his associate and Rex. The bewildered look on the latter’s face as he tries to work out what is meant in what has just been said is hilarious.
Paul Adelstein is fine as Miles’ associate Wrigley, as is Julia Duffy as Marylin’s friend Sarah Sorkin (who has about five surnames, each representing a husband she has divorced and profited by) and Richard Jenkins as Freddy Bender, Marylin’s lawyer. A few over-the-top characters are memorable – the marvellously high-camp Baron von Espy (Jonathan Hadary) and Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), the hitman. Among all the plot reversals, revealed schemes and unexpected reversals of fortune there is one scene which is arguably the funniest accidental death scene ever.
A delightfully ironic use of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, among others, allows some mordant points to be made about the marriage-and-divorce process either for accruing wealth or finding oneself a night manager at MacDonalds, depending on the skill of one’s lawyer. With its glossy Hollywood glamour look this film has a quality and feel of the finest of Evelyn Waugh satires and is a new benchmark in the portfolio of the talented Coen Brothers.
© Avril Carruthers 3rd October 2003
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