I have a confession to make. The first time I saw The Big Lebowski, which happened to be the first show on opening day, I hated it. Sure, the bizarre dream sequences thrilled my Busby Berkeley-loving heart, but the bits just didn't hang together. It was a distinctly "ehh" filmgoing experience.
When I watched it again [and again] on video, and later DVD, I eventually gave myself over to the hermetically sealed world the Coen brothers had constructed, and I fell in love. It makes no sense in the same way that The Big Sleep makes no sense--on paper--but it's filled with so much good stuff that no one cares. [Also, it drove me to watch The Long Goodbye again. Two words: Sterling Hayden] The postscript reprise of the Cowboy after a perfectly good ending still irks me as an unnecessary false note, but Lebowski is now one of my favorite films.
With this conversion experience in mind, I celebrated my return after a weekend spent mostly in Atlanta at a friend's wedding with a late show of les freres Coen's latest, Intolerable Cruelty [which should give you an idea of my sense of humor]. This is a high-gloss enterprise; it's not clear to me yet whether there's any heart beating behind its Brian Grazer-buffed surface. And it's not a question of the film being too mannered, either. I own a copy of The Hudsucker Proxy, people. And I like old musicals. Can't get more mannered.
That said, I must be on some sort of sonic kick because once again it's the music I've been thinking about. Ably stewarded by Carter Burwell, the man responsible for much of the X-Files' auditory eerieness, Intolerable Cruelty's soundtrack twists even the most banal AOR oldies into interesting new shapes. Yeah, of course they have to use Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" [over a hilarious, Gilliam-esque opening credits sequence]. But whoever had the idea of beginning the film with Geoffrey Rush singing along to Simon and Garfunkle's "The Boxer" as he drives an electric blue Jag convertable through the Hollywood hills toward a cuckcold's fate should get some sort of arts medal. From the French.
In fact, Intolerable Cruelty may include more Simon and Garfunkle songs than any film since The Graduate revolutionized filmdom's approach to the soundtrack with its thematic popular [!] folk [!!] music by a single band. But why?
I am reminded of a great throwaway scene early in 1992's The Player where Buck Henry, the screenwriter for The Graduate, is heard pitching a sequel about Benjamin and Elaine's daughter to a bored studio flack. It's meant to telegraph how debased and risk-averse Hollywood storytelling has become, but the idea's in line with Joel and Ethan Coen's salad-bar approach to genre and fearless steals from and nods to even the most sacred cows. Hollywood's genetic material becomes mutant RNA [mad cows?] in their hands.
So, what if Intolerable Cruelty, with its romance between serial divorcee Marylin Rexroth [Zeta-Jones] and preening pre-nup protector Miles Massey [Clooney], is one version of what happens after Ben and Elaine get off that bus? You don't need to be Tammy Wynette to know that at least one D-I-V-O-R-C-E was in those crazy kids' future.
In fact, what's called for is more Simon and Garfunkle music, but not from the Sounds of Silence era [although "April Come She Will" is put to hilarious use by a singing, strolling celebrant at Marylin's wedding]. Oh no, you'd have to go straight to their valedictory break-up album Bridge Over Troubled Water for all the high drama, self-indulgence, and recriminations of divorce. Then pull out the title track--performed on bagpipes--as the Vegas wedding chapel processional for Marylin and Miles' ill-considered union. You too can sob along with Clooney's flunky Wrigley [the genius Paul Adelstein]. After all, nothing less maudlin will do when two romantic cynics decide to leave themselves totally exposed to love and its legal consequences. I only wish their names were Joel and Ethan.
Oh, yes, and the inclusion and placement of the little sparrow Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien?" Laugh-out-loud funny.