Intolerable Cruelty
Produced by Alphaville Films and Imagine Entertainment  
Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Distributed by Universal Pictures

Lost in Translation
Produced by American Zoetrope and Elemental Films
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Distributed by Focus Features

Intolerable Cruelty should by prosecuted for intolerable smugness, the besetting sin of its authors, the filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen.  Venial in the past, their high-handed self-satisfaction has turned mortal here, curdling what should have been a creamy evocation of the screwball comedies Hollywood produced so reliably in the 1940’s. 

The story begins as a promising send-up of America’s eighth sacrament, divorce, and the priests who administer it, the order of “matrimonial” attorneys.  George Clooney plays Miles Massey, divorce lawyer to the rich and vile.  We first meet him at his dentist’s office, having his teeth whitened as he conducts business on his cell phone.  With dental gauze covering his face, we see little more than his choppers exercising themselves in the glare of ultraviolet light.  He is visually reduced to what he has made of himself: a mouthpiece of insufferable smarminess.  In the following scene, we find him in his own office tending to the woes of an adulterous blonde whose wealthy television-director husband has caught her in bed with another man.  She is unnerved at the prospect of losing the lavish life her husband has afforded her.  Massey listens with seeming sympathy, turned in his chair to display himself in a flatteringly slender three-quarter profile.  It is his practiced posture, doubtlessly borrowed from TV anchormen who simulate trustworthy gravitas on air while hiding any indication of unseemly girth.  It would not do to let hoi polloi notice that you are living large on their miseries.  Having heard the poor woman’s sordid tale, Massey quickly reassures her by shuffling its elements for jury consumption.  In his improved narrative, the lady comes upon her husband having a lover’s argument with the other fellow.  Although shocked to discover her husband is homosexual, she nevertheless heroically intervenes before he can do violence to his inamorata.  When Massey pauses to see how she is responding to his legal guff, her initial misgivings fade in the dazzle of his pearly whites.

So far, so good.  But Massey’s radiance pales by comparison when the incandescent Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) shows up.  She is the wife of his next client, a bumptious realtor who has been stupid enough to marry this conniving vixen without an “impenetrable” Massey prenuptial contract.  Now that he has followed his “wandering pee-pee” into legally demonstrable adultery, Marilyn is preparing to nail him to the wall and his assets to her bank account.

I should not give any more away, although you will probably be able to negotiate most of the film’s twists well in advance of the usual signposts announcing lust and greed.  This predictability is part of the problem.  Tone-deafness is the other.  When the otherwise comic script willfully detours into homicidal territory, its wheels lose the road for no better reason than that the Coens want to include some cool, smart-alecky gags.  This reckless driving is all the more disappointing because Clooney and Zeta-Jones play their parts so well.

As the apparently suave, in-control lawyer, Clooney has never been funnier.  He more than justifies all the comparisons to Cary Grant that he has garnered over the years.  He is an indictably handsome leading man, supremely negligent of his classic good looks.  When Massey is called on the carpet by his boss, Clooney transforms himself so thoroughly that he resembles a fifth grader who has been caught using a four-letter word.  His languidly athletic stance suddenly goes knock-kneed, as though he is wetting himself.  His deep tigerish eyes widen and somehow sag at the corners, pleading that he not be subjected to the paddle.  For her part, Zeta-Jones balances her fully ripened womanhood (you don’t have to be acquainted with the checkout gossip rags to know she’s had babies) with an icily calculating demeanor, a high-wire act guaranteed to drive insecure roosters like Massey wild.  This battle of the sexes is carried off deftly enough at first, although never with the élan of a Preston Sturges or a Billy Wilder.  Nevertheless, if the script had not taken its fatal turn, the Zeta-Jones/Clooney trompe l’oeil might have put this film in a league with Sturges’s The Lady Eve.

The film’s opening credit sequence forecasts its difficulties.  Animated cardboard cutouts of Victorian figures in various postures of courtship dance across the screen.  Cupids hover everywhere, and golden arrows fill the air.  It is a harbinger of the cutout characters that populate the story, men and woman comically rendered two-dimensional by manners and hormones as they play their prescribed roles in a tale of romance and consequence.  Even two-dimensional characters, however, must have some behavioral consistency if they are to engage us.  The Coens’ characters do not.  They are merely papier-mâché conveniences twisted into arbitrary poses to ridicule American conventions.  While I am quite prepared to laugh at divorce and its legal profiteers, I cannot be amused by characters who are cynical worldlings one moment and—hey, presto—love-besotted swains the next.  Even performers as accomplished as Clooney and Zeta-Jones cannot negotiate such instantaneous transformations without a human bridge.

The Coen brothers remind me of Evelyn Waugh’s caricature of a Bauhaus architect, Professor Otto Silenus in Decline and Fall.  Silenus designs sleek glass and aluminum structures and then complains bitterly when he is forced to equip them with such human accommodations as staircases and closets.  “The problem with architecture,” he declares, “is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. . . . All ill comes from man,” he gloomily concludes.  Despite their devotion to irony, the ever-formalistic Coens seem to have taken Professor Silenus at his word.

Waugh shows up more deliberately in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.  The film takes place in Tokyo and features a secondary character, a ditsy starlet come to promote her latest Hong Kong action film.  She confides to some friends that, for privacy’s sake, she has checked into her hotel as Evelyn Waugh.  This seems appropriate, since her hotel is one of the many anonymous glass towers that make up the film’s locations and might have satisfied Professor Silenus’ obsession with characterless architecture—but not quite.  Several of these frigidly austere buildings sport walking and talking humans in 40-foot-high video displays.  One of them looks mightily like Bill Murray holding a glass of Suntory whiskey under a wryly knowing moue.

Murray is Bob Harris, a married man, a father, and a nearly washed up movie action-hero.  He has come to Japan to be filmed drinking this whiskey, a promotional service he is willing to perform for a scant two million dollars.  Upon first arriving, he is chagrined to see his image on Japanese buildings and buses.  Wincing slightly at the absurdity of his fame, Murray’s face registers Bob’s regret at finding himself turned into an advertising prop of Brobdingnagian dimensions.  The disproportion between this fatuously ideal figure and his aging, disappointed self needs no comment.  

Although Coppola does not possess Waugh’s light satiric touch, her reference to him serves as an apt introduction to her characters in this loopy film.  Like so many of Waugh’s figures, hers find themselves rendered ciphers by the forces of modernity, manifested here as jet-lagged dislocation, celebrity infatuation, and tawdry self-merchandising, all played out against a high-tech urban milieu, glassily impervious to traditional human longings.

Coppola has learned from her father on this score.  In his master work, The Conversation, Francis Ford used San Francisco’s glass-and-steel corporate fortresses with their eerily sound-cushioned interiors to create a soulless limbo in which the high and mighty wield their joyless power.  The Tokyo hotel to which the weary Bob is taken by a gaggle of Japanese p.r. agents has the same vacancy about it.  Its rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that only succeed in emphasizing their funereal gray-black interiors.  When not being shepherded about by his overly solicitous hosts, Bob spends much of his time sitting on his bed alone and comatose, staring into the blank middle distance.  For relief, he goes to the hotel lounge, only to encounter more distorted reflections.  Two fans at the bar recognize him and ask if he did his own stunt driving in his films.  In the background, an American chanteuse renders Simon and Garfunkel ditties with embarrassing urgency.  The American culture of which he is so conspicuously a part does not get lost in translation but ironically clarified.  It is as if he were in one of those Kafkaesque dreams in which the strangeness of daily experience suddenly stands out in ghastly relief.  Translated to Tokyo, the cultural background of Los Angeles is stripped of its cloak of ordinariness and revealed in all of its surreal banality.

All is not Kafka, however.  Bob has a soul companion a few hotel floors away who promises to reorient him.  She is 22-year-old Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) whose photographer husband is off shooting on location, leaving her to fend for herself.  She is all too ready to understand Bob’s anomie, deprived herself of the habitual props of daily routine and ritual affection.  After a few pas de deux, she and Bob enter into a wary friendship that wavers at the doorway of romance, never quite arriving at, nor stepping away from, the sill.  In the warmth of their mutual attraction, they thaw and squirm free of their emotional deep freeze.  Murray’s dead gaze begins to twinkle with mischief.  Johansson’s slow, tentative smiles and defensive smirks turn to open laughter and her plump, ungainly body suddenly becomes gracefully lithe.  This is the way with romance: It opens people up to each other, translating their secret languages; it creates a private library of meaning.  Estranged from their surroundings, they construct an unlikely existential relationship in which they are free to speak what is unspeakable at home: Bob’s self-disgust and fear of death; Charlotte’s doubts about her husband and her future.  He is charmed by her innocence; she, by his experience.

And that’s about it.  But it’s a pretty hefty it, one rarely dealt with in American films.  This is not to say that the film lives up to its critical hype.  Some have hailed it as the equivalent of The Bicycle Thief, Rashomon, and La Dolce Vita.  In truth, it’s a small film with the merest wisp of a plot that profits enormously from the presence of two very substantial performers.  They manage to anchor it for a surprising portion of its 100 minutes.  Even Murray and Johansson, however, cannot keep the narrative fluff from floating away at times.  It would have been far better at half the length, both structurally and thematically.  

By going on too long, Coppola risks destroying her moral donnée.  In order to avoid entering into physical intimacy with Charlotte, Bob takes care to keep up the transparent fiction that their meetings happen more often than not by chance.  Stretching the film to 100 minutes, Coppola must strain to come up with different ways for these “chance” encounters to take place.  Furthermore, without much of a plot to distract us, she seems to be making her thematic point over and over.  It is a shame that films are expected to fit themselves to a studio-prescribed 90-to-120-minute length.  This film would have made a wonderful 50-minute feature on an old-fashioned double bill.  Still, it is well worth seeing.  It does something unheard of in American films today, presenting a man and a woman wise enough not to act on their impulses and thereby drive their respective spouses into the grasping hands of a Miles Massey.