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Film critics at war over Zeta Jones

Sep 8 2003

David Williamson, The Western Mail


CATHERINE ZETA JONES'S latest film has sparked a war of words among international critics who are unable to agree whether it is a work of near genius, a piece of amiable fluff or a desperate travesty.

If Intolerable Cruelty is deemed a success by audiences when it is released next month it will confirm Zeta Jones's status as one of Hollywood's most powerful actresses.

The film, which premiered last week at the Venice International Film Festival, is a modern-day screwball comedy in which she plays a gold-digging serial wife, at war with a ruthless divorce lawyer, played by George Clooney.

Jean Oppenheimer, of The Hollywood Reporter, one of the film industry's most influential publications, launched a particularly ferocious attack.

She said film-making team Joel and Ethan Coen had failed in their attempt to recreate the crackling wit of the romantic comedies of the 1950s.

"George Cukor, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder must be turning over in their graves," she wrote.

But Lee Marshall of rival publication Screen Daily described Intolerable Cruelty "continually and often hilariously, funny" and refuted suggestions that the brothers who wrote and directed such offbeat classics as Fargo and The Big Lebowski had performed a Hollywood sell-out by making the $US60m film.

He wrote, "They push the romantic comedy genre about as far as it can go in the direction of oddball satire without shafting the romance. It is The Lady Eve for the mobile-phone generation."

Veteran critic Derek Malcolm suggested that "perhaps the screenplay is a little too clever for its own good" and said the premiere screening "had its audience baying approval during its first half but couldn't quite sustain the enthusiasm during its second". However, he acknowledged that the legions of the Coen brothers' fans were likely to be pleased and "no one minds very much if the proceedings are at times yards over the top".

An enthusiastic Channel 4 reviewer said, "The only thing cruel about this film is that it comes to an end after 100 minutes."

The public will be able to draw their own conclusions when the film is released next month.

Intolerable Cruelty is a defining moment in the so far stratospheric career of Zeta Jones. In recent years she has established herself as one of the most reliably shining actresses in modern Hollywood but while she has brilliantly shared the screen with cast-iron luminaries such as Ren e Zellweger and Anthony Hopkins she has rarely appeared in a film in which her name is one of only two printed above the title.

When the first box-office receipts for Intolerable Cruelty come in Hollywood executives will know the answer to the question, "Can she carry a movie?"

For a film to be judged a hit it must earn three times its budget. If Intolerable Cruelty is to win a place in this category it needs to have ticket sales in the region of $180m.

Should the film triumph commercially Zeta Jones will cease to be cinema's most glamorous supporting actress and should be able to demand roles as challenging as Julia Roberts's in Erin Brockovich.

Intolerable Cruelty was at one time conceived as a vehicle for Roberts, who starred alongside Zeta Jones in American Sweethearts, and her Pretty Woman co-star Richard Gere. They chose to make Runaway Bride instead.


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