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Entertainment News

The Coens lose their edge

10/10/03

Joanna Connors
Plain Dealer Film Critic

O Coen brothers, where art thou?

You won't find them or their famously dark humor much in evidence in "Intolerable Cruelty" - a romantic comedy that brings them out from the indie edges, where they belong, and plops them right into the middle of the flabby mainstream, where they are aliens ready to be shipped to Area 51 and be examined.

While not intolerable, the movie is surprisingly flat and ordinary, at least coming from the guys who made such masterpieces as "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona."

How can this be? Well, not coincidentally, "Cruelty" happens to be the first film that the Coens did not write and produce on their own. They rewrote a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone and collaborated with uber-producer Brian Grazer, the extremely busy boy behind such movies as "A Beautiful Mind," "The Nutty Professor" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Cruel and intolerable indeed.

Like almost every other Hollywood romantic comedy of the past 10 years or so, "Intolerable Cruelty" is an attempt to replicate the screwball comedies of the '30s. The basic idea here is a battle-of-the-sexes match between two formidable, witty opponents who simultaneously want to win the battle, and end it in bed.

The Coens get the cast exactly right: George Clooney, who besides Hugh Grant is our era's best hope for a new Cary Grant, plays a slick, hardhearted Beverly Hills divorce lawyer who has never lost a case, and has never won love. Opposite him is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who - bless her - refuses to starve herself into anorexic starlet shape and thus is able to channel Rita Hayworth as a gold digger out to snag millions from a series of silly, rich husbands.

They meet across a law-office table, when Clooney's Miles Massey represents the silly, rich husband (Edward Herrmann) whom Zeta-Jones' Marylin Rexroth is out to fleece this time. Sparks fly; Miles goes goofy in love, and the battle is joined. Alas, however, not with the level of incisive and sexy repartee necessary to keep the film moving swiftly and surely.

The Coens have enlisted some terrific actors from their ever-increasing stable for supporting roles. Billy Bob Thornton gives the movie much-needed zing as an oil tycoon on Marylin's marriage radar, and the always-welcome Richard Jenkins plays Marylin's suffering divorce lawyer.

The brothers liven things up, too, with a few Coen-signature touches - there's a funny bit with a minister who comes down the aisle for a wedding strumming a guitar and singing Simon and Garfunkel. And I will always treasure the name of the divorce lawyer's association, the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide, or NOMAN, whose motto is, "let NOMAN put asunder."

It's enough to keep you mildly entertained for a couple of hours, but not nearly enough to make you grab friends and tell them to see it, right now. And mild entertainment is just not the Coen brothers' style.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jconnors@plaind.com, 216-999-4307


© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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