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Sexual chemistry lesson
(Filed: 04/09/2003)

Sheila Johnston on the Coen Brothers' bid to make a mainstream screwball comedy

The opening credits of Intolerable Cruelty unfold over a cunning animated flurry of Victorian cut-outs: hearts, flowers, demurely courting couples and adorable cupids.

Sparks: George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones star in Intolerable Cruelty

Have the Coen Brothers, justly famed for their cynicism, gone soft on us? No, wait: there is a worm in the bud. That frilly envelope contains, not a billet doux but a prenuptial agreement . . .

Divorce, Los Angeles style, is the ripe theme of the Coens' most determined bid yet to make a star-driven studio comedy, shown here as a work-in-progress but effectively complete. In the male corner is George Clooney, a smug attorney, who specialises in punitive settlements. A leading light of the National Organisation of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide (motto: "Let NOMAN put asunder"), he is revered in legal circles for devising an iron-clad "pre-nup" contract named after himself.

His nemesis is Catherine Zeta-Jones, a siren prone to failed marriages to wealthy buffoons. Piqued and smitten when he first sees her across the negotiating table, Clooney loses no time in inviting her to dinner. He masterfully orders tournedos for two: "I assume you're a carnivore." She (narrowing eyes): "You have no idea." We understand that our hero may have met his match in every sense.

A tribute to 1970s screwball comedies, Intolerable Cruelty is set in a shiny, glamorous, faintly old-fashioned world, where comic characters have silly dogs and (in the men's case) sock suspenders. It purrs along as confidently as a finely-tuned classic car; the brothers' skill at physical slapstick and fizzy dialogue may be taken as given.

But the film's real forte is the sexual chemistry and a sense of high, wicked fun sparked by its two antagonists. Clooney can play this foolish charmer with his eyes closed; Zeta-Jones, whose second pregnancy was responsible for the project's delayed completion, looks delicious as a gold-digger who is possibly just an ordinary gal unlucky in love.

Co-scripted, unusually for the Coens, with another writing team, Intolerable Cruelty irons out some of their quirks. Apart from Clooney and Billy Bob Thornton (the titular Man Who Wasn't There in their last film) as a goofy Texan oil mogul, their regular line-up of favoured character actors is missing from the supporting cast and those buffs who constitute their diehard core following might find the result a little impersonal.

The Venice audience loved it. But whether it will be their mainstream breakthrough remains uncertain. Glittering cruelty is what the Coens do best (one of the funniest, most vicious moments involves a wheezy hitman and an asthma inhaler); the heart they wear on their sleeves is still a callous one. The Clooney/Zeta-Jones union might be casting from heaven, but one suspects that their characters' romance is made in another place altogether.

10 May 2003: Why modern romance is rubbish [on recent romantic comedies]
8 March 2003: The morals of King George [interview with George Clooney]
2 April 2002: Thornton's wildness [interview with Billy Bob Thornton]
26 October 2001: The film that wasn't really there [review of The Man Who Wasn't There]
13 October 2001: Cutting edge Coens [interview with the Coen Brothers]

Next story: The future is now

Related reports 

External links 
Intolerable Cruelty [official site]
Ethan Coen - Internet Movie Database [IMDb]
Joel Coen - IMDb
Venice Film Festival