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Entertainment News

Cruel to be kind

10/10/03

SHAWN LEVY

Those Coen boys! What can't they do?

After a dazzling, diverse and decidedly Coenish streak of one-of-a-kind films including "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Man Who Wasn't There," the writing-directing-producing-editing tag team of Ethan and Joel Coen chose to do something they've never done before: take somebody else's comedy script, already in place at a major production company, and turn it into one of their inimitable jaunts.

The result, "Intolerable Cruelty," is a work of gentle, continual hilarity that feels far more ordinary than other Coen works and yet has every bit of the originality and exactness that makes the brothers' best films so wonderful. You can see the ghost outlines of the lousy Hollywood comedy that this material was doomed to be underneath the picture -- it's one of the charms, actually -- but you're in the hands of the Coens throughout, and if it isn't nearly their best work it's still plenty swell.

George Clooney stars as Miles Massey, an ultra-successful L.A. divorce lawyer (the impregnable Massey Pre-Nup is his baby) who has everything out of life except passion and purpose. He believes he has found what he's looking for when he meets Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an obvious gold-digger out to divorce one of Miles' clients and the calculating, fascinating woman of Miles' dreams. But Marilyn is only into marrying for the money, and Miles must look on from afar as she weds (and divorces) an oil millionaire in search of further riches.

This doesn't sound nearly as wrinkled or kinky as other Coen scenarios, but the film is studded with the quirky lines of dialogue, eccentric small characters, off-kilter musical choices and exacting camera gambits that characterize each of the brothers' films. Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious as a private eye with a specialty in nailing philanderers, Jonathan Hadary is unforgettable as a trial witness with some damning testimony, Tom Aldredge is a comic fright as the eldest partner in Clooney's law firm, Colin Linden is an insanely funny singing priest, and Irwin Keyes steals two scenes as a killer-for-hire with a trademark case of asthma.

On top of it all there is the dream team of Clooney, preening and fussing over his looks, bored beyond tears and catching the sniff of something irresistible in the air, and Zeta-Jones, a femme fatale from the old school whose sensuality and cunning come in equal, ample doses. The two of them dance a tango, a fandango, a pas-a-deux, whatever it is, with deliciously exacting drollness and flair.

There are aspects of "Intolerable Cruelty" that seem astoundingly familiar for a Coens movie -- I'm thinking of, in particular, virtually every bit involving Miles' co-counsel (Paul Adelstein), whose running gag is that he weeps at weddings. But these are less like missteps or lazy moments than concessions to the genre -- the Hollywood studio romantic comedy -- much in the way that various elements of "The Man Who Wasn't There" were clearly cribbed from a certain species of film noir. In the final estimation, had a studio hack been set on this material, there'd likely be nothing in it worth remembering; the Coens' version of it, though, is toothsomely hard to forget.

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