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Intolerable Cruelty: Farce a cruel trick on Coen brothers' fans

By Sean Piccoli
Entertainment Writer
Posted October 10 2003

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PHOTOS
Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty
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PHOTO GALLERY
"Intolerable Cruelty"

"Intolerable Cruelty" (Universal Pictures)


Intolerable Cruelty
With: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Directed by: Joel Coen
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated PG-13: language, adult situations
STORIES
The Coens are one happy family
Oct 10, 2003

Video

Trailer: 'Intolerable Cruelty'

(The FeedRoom)
 
Pick a theater:
or Pick a movie:
or Pick a city:
The new Coen Brothers movie Intolerable Cruelty never quite rises above its unhappy subject. A latter-day War of the Roses about a pair of high rollers in the divorce industry, this farcical contest of schemers means to find the comedy in marital misery. But it winds up playing like a separation -- loud, overheated and messy.

George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones star respectively as a divorce lawyer and a professional, man-eating divorcee. They meet as adversaries when Clooney's fast-talking Miles Massey takes the case of millionaire Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), who has been caught cheating on his wife, Marilyn, played by Zeta-Jones with suitably icy resolve.

Marilyn has Rex dead to rights -- and on videotape -- thanks to a camera-crew ambush at a motel room led by her private investigator, Guy Petch (Cedric the Entertainer). But Massey, the country's top divorce lawyer and author of the famously unbreachable "Massey prenup," considers the case a challenge. He is instantly attracted to Marilyn as they face one another across the table during early negotiations. But he humiliates her in court, exposing her as a would-be settlement queen. His client gets away with his millions untouched.

Miles is surprised, but hardly shocked, when Marilyn reappears at his office with a new fiance, a boob of a Texas oil man named Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton). As a show of loyalty to her husband-to-be, she says she wants to sign the legendary Massey prenup. Marilyn is playing the smitten Howard for a sucker, of course, and when he literally eats the prenuptial agreement as a show of his devotion, she is well on her way to becoming wealthy and unattached.

Miles and Marilyn meet one more time, at a divorce lawyer's convention in Las Vegas, and what might or might not be mutual attraction takes hold during an overpriced dinner. One arrives at the moment sort of hoping it is genuine. The movie has by now spent so much time jabbering and gesticulating -- like a lawyer making one of those reality-bending sales pitches to a prospective client -- that any sort of heartfelt pause or romantic grace note would be welcome.

Granted, all Coen Brothers movies from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the incomparable Fargo use overstatement as method. With their iconic characters and absurdist plots, they are basically comic books for grownups. But the sly wit and sense of timing that also mark the Coens seem to have gone missing here; everything is a half-step off. The situations and encounters feel recycled, and the allegedly snappy patter between Miles and his sidekick, Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), is mostly second-rate "Who's on first?" shtick.

Clooney has the makings of a fine comic actor and is agreeably willing to humiliate himself for a laugh. But he cannot seem to shake off the smug, self-advertising air that hangs over all Clooney performances -- and until he does he will always be more Alec Baldwin than Cary Grant.

It is not torture to watch Clooney interact if not quite ignite with Zeta-Jones, one of those devastating, dewy beauties who radiate magnetism without trying. But she is so easily persuasive as the opportunist that even when the movie signals some warming of her heart, only a fool for love would buy it.

Sean Piccoli can be reached at spiccoli@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4832.

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