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October 10, 2003
(PG-13). Cool, calm and collected farce about the Vlad the Impaler of divorce lawyers who finally meets his match. Quintessentially, paradoxically Coen: Funny, yes, but joyless, too. With George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Edward Hermann, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer. Screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. 1:40 (adult language, situations). At area theaters.
Irreconcilable differences dog the Coen brothers' "Intolerable Cruelty," which attempts to make caustic satire out of screwball comedy, fun out of loveless marriages and a physical comedian out of George Clooney (with not-inconsiderable success). It also positions Catherine Zeta-Jones as a femme fatale, which is not exactly stretching. And not stretching is what causes the cramps in "Intolerable Cruelty."
Those who have a problem with the Coens (personally, I have found their films to be smart and funny on several occasions and "Miller's Crossing" to be a classic) often cite their often insufferable smarminess. The fact is, they think they're a riot. If you happen to agree, it's your good fortune.
So the success of "Intolerable Cruelty" will depend to some degree on an audience's predisposition to the Coens' sense of humor, a pre-exisiting notion about their often-off-target lampooning of genre (in this case screwball/ Preston Sturges) and any pre- existing affection for its very appealing stars.
As Miles Massey, Clooney brings an absurdist charm -- and some Cary Grant-like gestural hilarity -- to a divorce lawyer so clever, so cutthroat, so bankrupt of conscience and with such a gift for fiction that he can even leave the devastating Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) alimony-free -- despite the videotapes she has of husband Rex (Edward Herrmann), his underwear, his hotel room and his girlfriend in the Frederick's of Hollywood spring collection.
Understandably, Marylin has it in for Massey. And he is a sitting duck -- not because of her beauty or class or heart, but because she's as avaricious as he is.
"Intolerable Cruelty" is a delicate construct, for all its heavy-handed (and often very funny) explosions of pre-post-marital deviousness. The point made early on is that Miles will meet his match, get his comeuppance and be hoisted on his own petard. And he will: No one in Hollywood could likely have played Marylin but Zeta-Jones, who has the necessary, shall we say, talents to leave someone as professionally aloof and personally icy as Miles writhing in a puddle of his own desire. So the casting is perfect. It's the point of view that's dubious.
Because you can look at "Intolerable Cruelty" in a couple of ways: 1) that here are a pair of quite singular people for whom the events in question could only happen to them; or, 2) as a commentary on the entire nasty business that divorce in this country has become. It's a tough line to negotiate, and the Coens don't exactly set up guideposts.
The "Massey Pre-Nup," the iron-clad contract upon which Miles has built his reputation, takes on mythic proportions in the context of the film: It's the device by which one spouse can assure him or herself of never having to tell themselves they're sorry. The Simon and Garfunkel songs that pop in and out of the soundtrack seem calculated to deflate, with withering irony, the quasi-triumph of idealistic love in "The Graduate." In short, however, the Coens are trying too hard to make mirth out of despair.
But as Clooney makes his way blithely through a thistle-field of movies other stars wouldn't touch, he grows in our estimation. Movie stars -- and Clooney is more than that -- have traditionally sustained their careers by never straying from the formula that originally made them rich. Clooney doesn't seem to care, and for that he deserves not just our admiration, but our wonder.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.
Copyright © Newsday, Inc. Produced by Newsday Electronic Publishing.
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