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neon Friday, October 10, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

MOVIE REVIEW: 'Intolerable Cruelty'


In "Intolerable Cruelty," two former courtroom adversaries -- the oft-married, oft-divorced Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and ace divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney) -- declare a temporary truce during a rendezvous at Caesars Palace.

The verdict on "Intolerable Cruelty"?

More than tolerable, thank you very much, but hardly the knockout you might expect from the endlessly idiosyncratic, defiantly iconoclastic Joel and Ethan Coen.

A neo-screwball comedy that pits dapper yet dizzy George Clooney against the sinuously slinky Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Intolerable Cruelty" serves up a diverting, sporadically devastating satire on the battle of the sexes.

But for those of us who love the undeniably weird but utterly unique Coens, "Intolerable Cruelty" feels a little like a tour through uncharted territory.

That hardly seems surprising, considering that the Coens -- they both write and edit (the latter under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes), Joel directs and Ethan produces -- turn up here as guns for hire.

It's a bit disconcerting, to say the least.

From "Blood Simple" to "Barton Fink," from "Miller's Crossing" to "The Man Who Wasn't There," the Coens have offered their own oddball takes on some of Hollywood's most hallowed genres: film noir, gangster melodrama, writer-in-torment drama.

Yet it's no accident that their best movie (so far) remains "Fargo," one of the few Coen works opuses to offset its focus on humanity's horrific side with a heaping helping of heart.

And while the Coens have skipped down the screwball comedy path before (notably in "The Hudsucker Proxy"), "Intolerable Cruelty" follows a more structured, more constricted route -- the kind producer Brian Grazer usually follows.

Grazer generally works with director Ron Howard -- who, once upon a time, was reportedly set to direct "Intolerable Cruelty."

Maybe the benign Howard would have felt more comfortable with "Intolerable Cruelty's" mainstream focus.

The Coens certainly don't. Not always, anyway. Throughout, you can feel them chomping at the bit, desperate to shake things up by unleashing more wild-and-crazy madness.

Instead, "Intolerable Cruelty" bounces around, sometimes on target, sometimes not, as it chronicles the heavyweight slugfest between ace divorce attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) and all-star serial gold digger Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones).

These two titans first clash when Marylin's philandering spouse Rex (a buffoonish Edward Herrmann) hires Miles to save his pitiful assets after Marylin sues him for divorce.

Despite incontrovertible evidence against Rex, Miles wins the case for his astonished client.

And Marylin, bruised in this initial skirmish but hardly disarmed, launches a foolproof scheme to win the war by hitting Miles at his most vulnerable point: his heart.

Thanks to his killer courtroom career, Miles has always assumed he's heartless.

Yet, somehow, Marylin has managed to pierce his previously indomitable personal defenses. Miles finds himself fascinated, captivated -- and hopelessly smitten.

So smitten that, when he finds himself in Las Vegas for a convention of divorce attorneys -- and catches sight of Marylin gliding down the Caesars Palace stairs -- his runaway emotions lead them straight to a suitably quirky Glitter Gulch wedding chapel.

Of course, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas -- as Miles discovers when he finds Marylin preparing to scram from their honeymoon suite and coolly commence her final revenge.

Which might not be so final after all.

Unlike most of the Coens' movies, "Intolerable Cruelty" didn't originate in their fiendishly fertile minds. John Romano (TV's "American Dreams") and the team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (the screenwriters behind the aptly titled "Big Trouble") concocted the story, while Ramsey and Stone also receive screenwriting credit along with the Coens.

That many cooks don't exactly spoil "Intolerable Cruelty," but they do make for an unevenly flavored broth, one that starts out with an intriguingly salty taste but grows stale and a bit sour by the end.

More's the pity, because at its best "Intolerable Cruelty" conjures fond memories of Hollywood's whirligig screwball comedies of yore.

Juggling eccentric characters and mile-a-minute quips with insouciant aplomb, the Coens smoothly move the movie from courtroom to casino, Beverly Hills to Las Vegas.

In the process, they introduce a gallery of ga-ga characters, including Geoffrey Rush as a sleazy TV producer, Billy Bob Thornton (who starred in the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There") as an aw-shucks Texas oil tycoon, Cedric the Entertainer as a gung-ho detective who's adept at catching straying spouses on video and horror veteran Irwin Keyes as an asthmatic goon known as Wheezy Joe, the focus of the movie's sickest -- and funniest -- sight gag. And then there's Miles' worshipful associate Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), who may aspire to cutthroat status but can't help dissolving into tears whenever he's within earshot of anyone saying "I do."

They're all amusing and sometimes more, but the more time "Intolerable Cruelty" spends with them, the less time we have to spend with Miles and Marylin, which dilutes not only the movie's central focus but its ultimate impact.

Marylin's character in particular seems cruelly underwritten, giving Zeta-Jones little to do besides look drop-dead gorgeous and smoulder enticingly. (Both of which she does -- surprise! -- with sultry ease.)

That leaves it to Clooney to keep "Intolerable Cruelty" percolating. And, as he did in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Clooney delivers in hilarious style, deploying an impressive comic arsenal (from stricken stares to stunned double-takes) as he undercuts his character's smug self-assurance.

He's as funny as he is handsome -- which is exactly the same formula that made Cary Grant such a treasure.

And while Clooney has a way to go before hitting those Olympian heights, he's as close as "Intolerable Cruelty" gets to the screwball classics it tries so mightily to emulate.

This Week's NEON


movie: "Intolerable Cruelty"
running time: 100 minutes
rating: PG-13; sexual references, profanity, brief violence
verdict: B-
now playing: Boulder, Cinedome, Green Valley Ranch, Neonopolis, Palms, Rainbow, Rancho, Texas, Showcase, Suncoast, Sunset, Las Vegas Drive-in

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