A tale of greed that's downright tolerable

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A tale of greed that's downright tolerable

Ruthe Stein, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Friday, October 10, 2003

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POLITE APPLAUSE Intolerable Cruelty: Romantic comedy. Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. (PG-13. 93 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)


George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones come the closest of their contemporaries to being old-time movie stars. It's not just their preternatural beauty but also their maturity. In the tradition of Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, Clooney and Zeta-Jones are believable as characters older than themselves who have been around the block.

They bring a world-weariness to "Intolerable Cruelty," the Coen brothers' too slick but amusing marital farce. Clooney is Miles Massey, king of the divorce attorneys and architect of the unbreakable Massey prenup, studied at Harvard Law School. Zeta-Jones is gold digger Marilyn Rexroth, whose speciality is bilking buffoons out of their fortunes. To appreciate how credibly they perform parts bordering on caricature, imagine Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise (Zeta-Jones and Clooney's ages, respectively) in the roles.

Marilyn is on her way to piling more initials on her alligator luggage when hubby du jour hires Massey. Naturally, an attraction develops between Miles and Marilyn, who are still working the angles even as they admire each other's angles and planes.

There's nothing subtle about their love-hate relationship. On a dinner date,

he says, "I assume you're a carnivore," to which she replies, "Oh, Mr. Massey,

you have no idea." Without being cloying, Zeta-Jones and Clooney convey an underlying message in this silliness: Money may buy the best lawyers and matching shoes and purses, but it can't buy happiness.

The lure of big bucks is a theme that Joel and Ethan Coen have explored before, in small films like "Fargo" and "Barton Fink." For "Intolerable Cruelty," the brothers hooked up with glitzy Hollywood producer Brian Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas") and screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone ("Big Trouble").

The Coens' legion of fans need not worry about too many cooks: "Intolerable" is unmistakably a Coen brothers film, with their peculiar sense of humor in evidence. Miles belongs to the National Association of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide, NOMAN for short. A copy of "Living Without Intestines" pops up in the office of his firm's 87-year-old senior partner (shown hooked up to three life-support systems as he mutters between wheezes about the huge settlements he's won).

Working with their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, the Coens capture the Los Angeles haze through the windshield of a car zooming toward an illicit affair. But their vision of L.A. isn't particularly original, probably because the town has become a movie cliche. On the other hand, where else could you set a story of greed among the filthy rich?

"Intolerable" scores on showing these vultures in all their plumage. Miles can't pass a mirror without admiring his teeth. He's introduced in a dentist's chair, a black light illuminating his pearly whites, brightened to a shade that would scare children. Marilyn appears in divorce court in demure pink. Her gal pal, an expert on how to bleed an ex, wears a kind of camouflage pantsuit, as if prepared for battle, with matching two-tone nail polish.

The Coens' eye for casting is evident in supporting roles. Cedric the Entertainer is amusing as a two-bit detective who invites pals over to watch the X-rated videos he's shot of straying husbands. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderfully droll as one of Marilyn's marks, a hick so out of his element that he thinks Rodeo Drive is pronounced as if bucking horses perform there.

Two-thirds through, "Intolerable Cruelty" shifts to Las Vegas and runs out of steam, like a gambler after an all-nighter. The sharp editing, which added to the movie's hilarity, slacks off. Miles' speech to NOMAN renouncing his money-grubbing ways goes on too long, as does a scene of an arranged hit. The movie settles for slapstick and a conventional ending when it could have gone for something unpredictable and smarter.

- Mildly suggestive sexual scenes.

E-mail Ruthe Stein at rstein@sfchronicle.com.


 
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10/07/2003 - At the Movies: `Intolerable Cruelty' .

07/06/2001 - CURRENT VIDEO RELEASES .

06/29/2001 - CURRENT VIDEO RELEASES .

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