This month sees a pair of eclectic filmmakers taking a stab at more mainstream flicks, with decidedly mixed results. With “In The Cut,” New Zealand’s Jane Campion — long a leading light of independent cinema, whose 1993 film “The Piano” took home three Oscars — tries to shoehorn her concerns into a serial-killer flick with a Hollywood star, Meg Ryan. Meanwhile, the Coen brothers — America’s most successful cinematic oddballs — attempt a straight-up, albeit sharp-edged romantic comedy with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Intolerable Cruelty.”
Campion’s movie smacks of a director trying to have it both ways, and ending up with neither. To her credit, she stays true to her themes, exploring the darker side of female desire and the dynamics of sexual power within a tightly controlled atmosphere of seedy dread in present-day NYC. The downside, however, is that the genre requirements of suspense and creepy thrills take a back seat. Campion’s also stuck with a ludicrous final act, which undoes a lot of the better bits that precede it. (It’s better, though, than the slow butchery that ends the Susanna Moore novel this is based on.)
Ryan plays Frannie Avery, a 40-ish, but still single, professor of English literature at a New York university. She’s largely given up on finding Mr. Right, but her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), is still playing the field and encouraging Frannie to do the same. For a woman who’s not getting any, though, Frannie’s entire life seems to exist in an eroticized daze: She meets a buff student who’s obviously hitting on her in a dingy bar full of hookers, where she watches one customer getting a blow job in the toilet. Later, she’s drawn to a gruff detective, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who’s investigating a gruesome murder that was committed near Frannie’s apartment. She goes out on a “date” with Malloy to another scuzzy bar, where Malloy and his wife-beating partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici), engage in locker-room talk that would have any sane woman heading for the exit. (“All a guy needs in a woman is a hole, tits, and a heartbeat.” “You don’t even need the tits.” “Or the heartbeat.”)
Of course, Frannie isn’t “any sane woman.” She’s so traumatized by the fact that her dad dumped her mom (who died from “a broken heart”), that she’s become obsessed with cruelly unfeeling men. That guy getting head in the toilet sticks in her memory, and when she thinks it might be Malloy, that just turns her on even more. The film tries to walk a line between the attraction of seemingly dangerous brutes and truly dangerous psychos — like Frannie’s ex, a stalker played with scene-stealing intensity by Kevin Bacon. But most viewers will jump ship when Frannie — mere hours after her closest friend is dismembered — shags the guy she suspects may have done it.
Half the point of the film seems to be that women pushing 40 still have sex drives. Leigh, sporting a spare tire and letting the creases in her face show, gets some remarkably nasty dialogue, while Ryan gets shot nude with breast-sagging authenticity. The makeup and lighting staff don’t do her any favors, though: Charlotte Rampling, a good decade-plus older than Ryan, looks her age but infinitely more appealing in “Swimming Pool.” De-glamorizing Meg Ryan may be an exercise in realism, but it sure won’t play well with her romantic-comedy fans.
The Coen brothers (director Joel and producer Ethan) have better luck with “Intolerable Cruelty,” a verbally adroit comedy that pits Clooney as the slickest divorce lawyer in Los Angeles vs. Zeta-Jones as a cynical man-eating moneygrubber. Both of them play to form, with Clooney’s character building on the suave, vain charmers he’s played in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” while Zeta-Jones is an extension of the lawsuit-flinging regal bitch she’s played in real-life.
Both are excellent, and bounce one-liners off each other with the zing and verve that the Coen bros. have admired in classic ’30s and ’40s love comedies, and have emulated before in “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Clooney’s attorney, Miles Massey, has perfected a prenuptial agreement that is iron-clad, one that protects his wealthy clients from any claims on their assets or money.
Zeta-Jones’ Marilyn, on the other hand, is the queen of gold-diggers, the sort of woman who could inspire 1,000 hip-hop rants. Marilyn seeks out wealthy men with “wandering pee-pees,” who are prime for a lucrative divorce a few years down the road. When Massey denies her a payoff with her current ex, his client, she plots revenge. Soon she’s back in his office with her new fiance, a fantastically wealthy and dim-witted oil tycoon from Texas (Billy Bob Thornton) who’s obviously being taken for a ride. But Marilyn wants to sign the Massey pre-nup, to prove her love for her man. Massey, profoundly skeptical, is intrigued by Marilyn’s cunning, and soon falls for her.
The premise is pure “Out of Sight” — professional rivals who let love trump their better instincts. But “Intolerable Cruelty” — as befitting a film about lawyers, divorce and L.A. — never lets us get too dewy-eyed about love conquering all. Sure, it sets us up for a happy ending, but pulls it out from under us faster than you can say Becks and Posh. Can cynicism reconcile with optimism? Massey seems to think so, but one reel later he’s hiring a hit man.
Still, this is Coen Bros. Lite, and you can blame it on the fact that, for the first time, they didn’t pen the script. It’s most noticeable in the minor characters, far less colorful or eccentric than usual, and also in the film’s tightness — gone are the wild digressions and flights of fancy that make every other Coen film so distinctive. Hopefully this isn’t a harbinger of things to come (their remake of “The Ladykillers” opens in late May) but the Coens are talented enough craftsmen that even their less-inspired works have a certain charm.