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Intolerable Cruelty

Bottom line: The Coen brothers go Hollywood and end up with a throw-away farce instead of a sparkling romantic comedy.
Venice International Film Festival

VENICE, Italy -- The Coen brothers had a golden opportunity to make a darkly humorous, deliciously clever battle of the sexes, and they let it slip through their fingers. Instead, the duo behind such irreverent and perverse comedies as "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona" settled for a broad farce that is long on manic, cartoonish behavior and short on intelligence and wit. Given the palpable chemistry that exists between stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this proves doubly disappointing.

A public accustomed to broad, undemanding Hollywood comedies filled with sitcom characters and buffoonish situations may react more kindly. Considering the star wattage here and the fact that audiences are starved for a good romantic comedy, Universal can expect a modest hit.

Clooney plays ace divorce attorney Miles Massey, whose killer charm and underhanded tactics have won more cases for more clients than any matrimonial lawyer in all of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills included. But after years of nothing but success, Massey has gotten bored. Something is missing from his life. At the very least, he needs a new challenge.

Enter Marylin Rexroth (the devastatingly gorgeous Zeta-Jones), about-to-be ex-wife of Massey's client Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann). Thanks to caught-in-the-act photographs by private eye Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), Marylin has an ironclad case. Or so she thinks. Massey uncovers some dirt on her, and she ends up with zip.

Surprisingly, Marylin doesn't seem to hold a grudge against Massey. She even goes to him to write a prenup for her next, very hasty marriage to oil billionaire Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton). Massey, who was smitten with the elegant, unflappable Marylin the moment he laid eyes on her -- an attraction cemented when they trade Shakespearean barbs over dinner (the film's only example of witty repartee) -- tries to dissuade her from the marriage, which she clearly means to abandon at the earliest, legally permissible moment.

He fails, but when the inevitable happens and she leaves Doyle, Miles is waiting, and the two run off to get married. It turns out that the clever Marylin has a few tricks up her tastefully tailored sleeve, however, and Massey, truly and hopelessly in love for the first time in his life, is hung out to dry. He vows his own revenge, and soon the two are engaged in their own rehash of "Prizzi's Honor."

Clooney has the potential to be another Cary Grant, and perhaps, given the right script and direction, he could succeed -- think of Grant and Irene Dunne in one of the great romantic comedies of all time, "The Awful Truth" -- but here he becomes increasingly bug-eyed and goofy as the movie wears on, as if he is playing Miles as another version of his character in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The script doesn't help. Aside from a couple of very funny lines, the dialogue is undistinguished, lacking the zing and wit that made the likes of Preston Sturges and Noel Coward such a delight.

Known for much blacker and more perverse humor than that exhibited here, director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen (who share screenwriting credit with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) can be forgiven for trying a more conventional type of film, but it's disappointing to think they meant it to be quite this broad and generic. The stereotypical slapstick of the opening scene, in which a TV hack played by Geoffrey Rush catches his wife with the brawny but brainless pool guy, is lazy and witless. Hermann as Marylin's ex and Paul Adelstein as Massey's worshipful associate are an embarrassment.

Amazingly, the audience at the Venice International Film Festival laughed through much of the movie. Maybe viewers no longer require a sharp script or incisive humor. George Cukor, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder must be turning over in their graves.

Universal Pictures
A Brian Grazer production in association with Alphaville
Director: Joel Coen
Screenwriters: Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producers: Ethan Coen, Brain Grazer
Exec producer: James Jacks, Sean Daniel
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Leslie McDonald
Music: Carter Burwell
Co-producer: John Cameron, James Whitaker
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick Jaynes. Cast:
Miles Massey: George Clooney
Marylin: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Donovan Donaly: Geoffrey Rush
Gus Petch: Cedric the Entertainer
Rex Rexroth: Edward Herrmann
Freddy Bender: Richard Jenkins
Howard Doyle: Billy Bob Thornton
Wrigley: Paul Adelstein
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

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