Intolerable Cruelty
review by Nicholas Schager, 17 October 2003

Conceptual Experiment

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been masters of sly, good-natured irony, but they’ve never been adept at conveying sincere human emotion. I can vividly recall every deliciously oddball twist and turn in The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but the Coens distinctive style – wacky caricatures populating a revisionist genre landscape of narrative and visual lunacy – tends to keep viewers at a safe, impassive distance from the action. Their new film, Intolerable Cruelty, is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and features two delectable lead performances from George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a divorce lawyer and gold digger engaged in a war of romantic wills. What it cannot deliver, however, is the requisite passion necessary to make this muddled film sizzle.

Miles Massey (Clooney) is the quintessential legal shark, an amoral divorce lawyer renowned for his linguistic cunning and his airtight “Massey Pre-nup.”  As played by Clooney, Massey is a fatuous superstar obsessed with projecting a flawless, debonair image of himself, but his success proves no cure for an unshakable discontent with his life. Something is missing from this divorce lawyer’s charmed world, and the predictable irony is that it’s love. Pitted against Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) during a routine divorce proceeding, Massey falls head-over-heels for this conniving beauty who, it turns out, is hell-bent on marrying a rich fool just so she can usurp his fortune during the ensuing legal separation. If Massey is a tiger shark, Marylin is a great white, and it’s not long before Massey is declaring to Marylin in breathless reverence, “You fascinate me.”

Clooney and Zeta-Jones make a dashing couple, and the rat-a-tat-tat witticisms they playfully volley at each other give the film most of its zip. Yet by interjecting a series of amusing but unnecessary cartoonish side characters into the romantic mix – including Geoffrey Rush as a wronged soap opera producer, Billy Bob Thornton as Marylin’s cowboy second husband, and Cedric the Entertainer as a private investigator – the Coens wind up creating a film with something of an identity crisis. The script (by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and Joel and Ethan Coen) awkwardly seesaws between romance and slapstick, and this lack of a consistent tone frequently sabotages the film’s delightful performances. More often than one would like, Intolerable Cruelty merely resembles a typical Hollywood love story embellished with a few signature Coen touches.

Still, if the Coens’ latest feels like an awkward conceptual experiment rather than an affecting triumph, there nonetheless are moments of inspired hilarity. Cedric the Entertainer’s boisterous Gus Petch, a P.I. who derives immense pleasure from clandestinely videotaping cheating husbands, is a riot, even if his presence in the film seems superfluous at best. As an asthmatic assassin named Wheezy Joe, Irwin Keyes delivers a knockout peripheral performance that humorously melds lunkheaded obedience with indifference. Yet it is Clooney, smoothly undercutting Massey’s air of suave pretension with a charmingly goofy vulnerability, that keeps this wayward story on course. With his chic designer suits and absurdly sophisticated elocution, Clooney gives his love-struck litigator a buffoonish but gentle soul, and his transformation from unscrupulous cad to sentimental softy is a small triumph of comedic acting. That the rest of this tepid film never matches Clooney’s madcap verve is, given the Coens’ preference for zany excess over human drama, probably not the irony the filmmakers were looking for.

Directed by:
Joel Coen

George Clooney
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Paul Adelstein
Edward Hermann
Richard Jenkins
Cedric the Entertainer
Geoffrey Rush 
Billy Bob Thornton

Written by:
Robert Ramsey
Matthew Stone
Ethan Coen 
Joel Coen
John Romano

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.






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