All the world's a stage, and nowhere is this more obvious than in divorce court, the setting for the fitfully funny new Coen brothers farce, "Intolerable Cruelty." It aims to be a sophisticated screwball comedy about love and divorce and the prenuptial agreement "that's never been penetrated."
What it is a frustratingly sharp misfire that comes close to being hilarious but never quite clicks in its pacing, timing or tone. It's an hour and 40 minutes long, and seems at least 30 minutes longer.
George Clooney, calmed down a little from his "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" lunacy, stars as Miles Massey, a toothy shark of an L.A. divorce attorney. He's growing disenchanted with his life and his work.
"No-fault divorce? Talk about your oxymorons."
He thinks he's found the answer when he represents a rich heel, Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann). That's when he meets the gold-digging Marilyn, played to the vava-voom hilt by Catherine Zeta-Jones. The shark has met his match.
"Youuuuu fascinate me" is all he can utter. The chase is on, through marriages, prenups, challenged wills and scary "audiences" with the gnome who runs Massey's law firm, played with wheezing creakiness by Tom Aldredge.
Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, the guys who adapted "Big Trouble," wrote this, and there's evidence of conflicting agendas on the screen. With middlebrow producer Brian Grazer as a mediator, the result is a movie that errs on the side of caution and sentiment.
Some Coen touches are present, but the whiplash dialogue and zany pacing of their funniest work is missing. The meanness that the premise promises is watered down. It rarely reaches the level of the best "Ally McBeal" episodes, which is a pity, considering what the moviemakers seem to want to say about love and divorce in the age of too many lawyers.
The movie turns sentimental in its last act, a blunder akin to the stumbles of "Big Trouble."
But virtually every cameo is a killer, from Cedric the Entertainer's over-the-top turn as a leering private eye to Billy Bob Thornton's drawling goof on the cliched Texas oil millionaire.
But it all comes down to "Much Ado About Nothing," as Clooney, charming and smarmy and funny as he can be, is reduced to toothily mugging for the camera as he becomes another classic Coen grotesque.