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Real mean goes missing in 'Cruelty'

By David Elliott

October 10, 2003


"Intolerable Cruelty" Rated PG-13; opens today

You could be 97, almost blind and mummified in dry ice and odds are your blood would still heat at the first sight of Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty." Molded by a flaming red dress, her hair and skin so perfect they could cause makeover riots on Rodeo Drive, Z-J leaves OK way behind.

But the cruel part of the new Coen Bros. (Joel and Ethan) comedy is that Zeta-Jones barely acts. She's like a pasted-on attraction. We keep expecting something to ignite between her and George Clooney, something sexy and wild and delightfully cruel (the movie isn't nearly mean enough).

She is a gold digger named Marylin; he is L.A.'s mostly smoothly predatory divorce lawyer, Miles. Creator of a foolproof prenup, Miles is obsessed with his teeth and increasingly unimpressed by his triumphs.

He maneuvers the divorce rape of an Aussie sucker (Geoffrey Rush), then fends off Marylin's divorce pillage of her "silly man" millionaire Rex (Edward Herrmann, so silly he leaps upon a gay concierge in court while screaming "I love trains!").

Miles and Marylin are barracudas swimming in white wine, but the movie lacks teeth. There are bites along the way, delivered on the pop-up trays of giddy showmanship the Coens are known for. But this mostly comes down to supporting actors having almost detachable flings with the plot – bits delivered by Rush, Herrmann, Cedric the Entertainer and, with his hick accent a sitcom in itself, Billy Bob Thornton as Marylin's most smitten husband.

The movie is flip and brassy and partly written by non-Coens, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. But it isn't a satire on the rich or marriage or lawyers, and nothing beyond pre-nups is at stake. When Marylin and Miles both reveal they are bored with their lavish gains, it exposes a core of ennui in the movie, and this shrivels what should be the funny friction of two cynics who can't help falling in love.

For retrieval, there is a frantic script leap to Miles' improvised speech on love to a Vegas convention of lawyers. Clooney gives it a dear, Frank Capra try, but as go-for-it humor this is on the same level as Miles' nightmares set to Mozart's Requiem, the gay concierge schtick, the colostomy bag joke and Cedric booming his funky catchphrase.

Clooney has never seemed more like George Maharis' idea of Cary Grant; it is too easy to focus on his suits. And Zeta-Jones has never looked better (hardly anyone ever has), but her vamping lacks the intercut of hot and cold that Kathleen Turner brought to her greedy maneater in "Prizzi's Honor."

The Coens are a hugely talented pair who tend to flail around like comedy campers with weak material; their zeal to amuse wins them points even when the humor sags. They shouldn't be reduced to the awful "madcap" scene of the hired killer who seems to be a dimwit wrestler, afflicted by pepper spray (let's blame the imported writers, but how fair is that?).

Yes, there are some funny moments here and there, but the movie never has the point of a real farce. It just keep coming, like a crazed lawyer, and we don't have a prenup to protect our viewing interests.

A Universal Pictures release. Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone. Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton, Edward Herrmann. Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

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