“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway
The “Massey pre-nup”, a supposedly foolproof, unbreakable prenuptial agreement is at the heart of the Coen Brother’s attempt at recreating the magic of early Hollywood screwball comedy, as frequently brought up as it is immediately torn apart in the name of love. Strangely, that might just be a fitting metaphor for the messy, contradictory, and downright odd film that it is. It hints at the potential of something greater than it is, only to have mainstream convention and plot contrivances mire the facade. The first job as “writers-for-hire” for the Coens, it gives off the impression of several screenwriters all trying to cram their large, misshapen pegs into a circular hole. And it’s hard to hold that against the pair, as the original concept and developed screenplay were each created by different people before it to eventually landed in their lap. There are occasional moments where their vision shines through, but they are few and far between, leaving a jumping, befuddling piece of work. It can’t seem to make up its mind between appealing to mainstream audiences or adding dashes of Coen absurdity and philosophy, leaving it somewhere in the middle in an area that’s bland, and ultimately disappointing.
Almost instantaneously jarring, the lengthy opening sequence features Geoffrey Rush as a rich, ponytail-wearing soap opera producer jamming out ineffectively to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” on his drive home, who then discovers his wife has been cheating on with a pool cleaner. If that sounds interesting to you, I can assure, it’s really not. The Coens do occasionally include prologues, like their brilliant ghost tale in A SERIOUS MAN, but this feels quite out-of-place, almost as if from a different film entirely, and plays minimal importance in the actual storyline. Though Rush is listed high in the credits, this is the primary source of his screentime, only popping up twice more for a total of about thirty seconds. It’s a shame someone of his talent has this as his one credit with such frequently brilliant filmmakers. From there it leaps to introduce us to Miles Massey (George Clooney), a slick divorce attorney who has a strange fixation with his teeth, and who is, of course, the author of the aforementioned pre-nup. It takes several steps before we see how he’s pitted against the gold-digging Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a woman who fascinates him in her ability to manipulate the utter buffoons she marries. His attraction to her is undeniable, though her’s towards him is always in question, eventually leading them down a road that, narratively, seems like it should have taken several different directions before it stops at an abrupt conclusion.
There’s always a nice spark that happens when Clooney pairs up with the Coens, and in the likes of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, BURN AFTER READING, and last year’s HAIL CAESAR!, they’ve collaborated to create some wonderful, goofy, self-absorbed, idiosyncratic, lovable dopes over the years. Miles Massey has the core elements to stand alongside them, but falls short by feeling thinly drawn and derivative of them. Even his moments of back-and-forth witticisms and flirtations with Zeta-Jones feel like lesser echoes of the sizzling chemistry he’s showcased with other stars in Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT or OCEAN’S ELEVEN, or even Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR, which also features a dramatic speech that gives Clooney more to play with than Massey’s address here to a divorce attorney convention. In his defense, he seems to be throwing himself into it headlong, but the script constantly lets him down. Even more let down is Zeta-Jones’ Rexroth, primarily viewed through Massey’s objectifying eyes, and we never get a good feel for why exactly she dupes her husbands outside of a desire for money. That’s her defining characteristic, and with the theme of trust being constantly noted, she comes across as a liar more than anything else, which is problematic to say the least. There’s also a wide spread cast that hits as often as it misses, though the true winner might be Billy Bob Thornton as a gosh-darn, down-to-earth, simple oil tycoon who’ll ramble on unless physically stopped.
It saddens me that the fault of the picture falls primarily at the feet of the writing, especially when the screenwriters are two of the finest storytellers in contemporary cinema, but I have to remind myself that it’s not entirely of their making. That’s not to say there aren’t glimmers of brilliance throughout, because there are distinct touches here and there that feel like they belong on lists of great Coen Brothers moments. Thornton’s introductory scene is magnificent, of course, and the ailing boss Herb Myerson feels like a precursor to the rabbi in A SERIOUS MAN. Both courtroom scenes feature some colorful characters and snappy dialogue, and there’s even a moment with hired killer “Wheezy Joe” that might be one of the funniest pieces of black humor they’ve ever concocted, but they’re all definitely not enough to save the film. Even their longtime collaborator, and cinematography legend, Roger Deakins feels wasted here, only finding a rare opportunity to showcase his masterful eye, as in the above shot of Massey getting his teeth whitened, or the visual gag of a character expiring as a framed projection of a train passing that echoes the famous Lumiere Brothers film plays over his final moments. And their own editing, under their Roderick Jaynes title, is confusing at best. It jumps around early and often, leaving the viewer struggling to catch up and connect the dots of a seemingly simple story. And that’s what it boils down to, a poorly executed story with very minimal genius.
According to the Coens, the film was in the works for nearly eight years as their employment on the script began as far as back as the mid-90s. During that time, it was designed to be a vehicle for the reunions of several on-screen pairings, though none panned out, and the directorial duties eventually fell to the brothers themselves. Its journey to the screen shows, significantly worse for wear, and somehow compromised and retooled by a studio that wanted something broadly appealing and less obscure or singular. What remains are remnants of what the studio desired and the treatment the Coen’s gave it, amounting to the equivalent of an IKEA product not only with frustrating directions, but with parts for multiple products, yet not all the ones needed to make what you initially bought. It doesn’t even seek to find any depth to the nature of trust it seems so vocal about, only scratching the surface. Basically, it achieves a status of forgettability: not noteworthy enough to make it stand out in the string of similar studio-produced romantic comedies, yet slightly weird enough to off-put wider audiences. It just falls through the cracks, and maybe that’s ok. There’s a brief scene where Clooney stands at the net on a tennis court, monotonously deflecting tennis balls in a preoccupied and distanced manner. Perhaps that’s how the Coen Brothers felt making this film, their minds elsewhere planning their next great endeavor, while simply going through the motions to complete the task at hand.
(Watchlist is a series of posts dedicated to the ever growing list of films that I’ve been meaning to see but have yet to watch for the first time)