George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty."
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Oct. 10, 2003 | "Intolerable Cruelty" has a solid farce structure, a bunch of ripe second bananas, and two sinfully attractive stars ready to raise comic hell. So why is a movie with so many genuine laughs and so many good bits only fitfully amusing?
The short answer is that the Coen brothers seem to be incapable of trusting their material. In "Intolerable Cruelty" they've begun with a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (which the Coens also worked on) that has just about everything you'd want in a farce: a juicy premise, escalating complications, eccentric supporting characters, good lines and a taste for the absurd (there's no reason that a Vegas wedding chapel should have a Scottish theme other than that's just the kind of lunacy you'd expect in screwball comedy).
But they can't resist "tweaking" it, and while their usual cartoonish air is considerably toned down here, even the slight emphases that they bring to shots or sequences can be fatal to comic timing. At times, in "Intolerable Cruelty," they are the equivalent of actors who think that the way to do comedy is to act funny. But in good screwball farce, the lunacy arises from the situations and the characters and the best thing a director can do is to stay out of the way of both. For much of "Intolerable Cruelty," the camera seems to be in the wrong place. Actors are stranded in long shots when the camera needs to be on them to give the comic moments shape and punch, or the camera is positioned low so that they seem to be looming over us.
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