Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney in Universal's "Intolerable Cruelty" (Universal)

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY
Our rating:
(PG-13: sex, language and brief violence)
Starring: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein.
Director: Joel Coen.
Running time: 1 hr. 41 min.
Playing: Wide release.
In a nutshell: The Coen brothers find yet another genre - this time it's a screwball comedy - they can master.
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10/10/2003

Coens throw fine screwball


By Glenn Whipp
Film Critic


For anyone who thinks that Joel and Ethan Coen have sold out just because they've made a movie with mainstream producer Brian Grazer, get over it. The Coens' latest, "Intolerable Cruelty,' is silly, acidic and very funny, and while it's not as idiosyncratically weird as, say, "Fargo' or "The Big Lebowski,' it does crackle and pop in a way that calls to mind the best banter in Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday.'

Nobody, save for maybe a nearsighted Coen purist, will be disappointed.

"Intolerable Cruelty' is, in fact, further proof that the Coens can take any genre -- in this case, a star-driven screwball comedy -- and make it work without sacrificing their unique sensibility in the process. And following their collaboration in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?' this film confirms that George Clooney not only gets that sensibility but can enliven it with deeply satisfying results.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a slick, successful Los Angeles divorce attorney specializing in winning favorable settlements for even the most unworthy of clients. While defending one louse, he meets the (possibly) wronged wife, Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and is captivated -- but not enough to keep him from doing her wrong during the divorce proceedings. But the wily Marilyn isn't one to suffer a setback smiling, so she finds a new sugar daddy (Billy Bob Thornton in a great supporting turn) and enlists Miles to draw up the prenuptial agreement, even though -- in theory -- such a contract would work against her.

This sets into motion a series of twists and turns and opportunities for Clooney and Zeta-Jones to exchange rapid-fire ribbing, while sending up their own glamorous images. Not everything works perfectly; Marilyn is more of a plot device than an actual character, but Zeta-Jones, in a great comedic role, is game and, besides, she looks great in that red dress.

Like most Coen comedies, there are plenty of zany, inventive situations (one involving an asthmatic hit man named Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) provides one of the best gags of this -- or any -- year) and wonderfully drawn supporting characters. The latter crowd includes a pony-tailed Geoffrey Rush in a delightful caricature of Hollywood vanity, Cedric the Entertainer as a zealous private detective and Paul Adelstein, perfect as Miles' faithful -- and sometimes overemotional -- sidekick. Adelstein is so darn likable, one can only hope the Coens will cast him again someday.

But then, that will depend on Adelstein's versatility, since the Coens -- who have just finished shooting a remake of "The Ladykillers,' keep hopping between genres. Watching them defy the odds continues to be one of the great pleasures of going to the movies.

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Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672 glenn.whipp@dailynews.com