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Improbable romance muddies an otherwise slick 'Cruelty'
TRIBUNE-REVIEW FILM CRITIC
Friday, October 10, 2003
Forget love, honor and politically incorrect obedience.
The affianced, married, estranged and divorcing characters in "Intolerable Cruelty" engage in adultery, lies, distortions, protection, exposure and compulsive avariciousness.
It's not about who's in the wrong but who has the most duplicitous attorney.
Renowned among the divorce attorneys is vainglorious Miles Massey (George Clooney), whose foolproof pre-nup is so tight a contract that it's a course unto itself at Harvard Law School.
The match he inevitably meets is serene, svelte, sultry Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose off-screen pre-nup with Michael Douglas was the most publicized since Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis).
Marylin is a gold-digging perpetual newlywed who lives to acquire.
"Intolerable Cruelty" was written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone and re-written by Ethan Coen and director Joel Coen, a rare Coen enterprise blueprinted primarily by others.
It's by far the glossiest of their pictures and one of the darkest comedies anyone has made since "The War of the Roses," "Prizzi's Honor" and the Coens' own "Fargo."
They've designed "Intolerable Cruelty" as a screwball comedy, properly set among the richer and the richer, where the stakes are never as consequential as the strategies.
Therein lies its central flaw -- one common to nearly all modern mainstream movies:
Delectably set up, as the characters establish their strengths and foibles, it slips progressively more into plot machinations in which behavior no longer is being dictated by character but by artificially imposed twists and implausible reversals.
It's most fun when it's being slick and snappy, not when it asks us to take romance the slightest bit seriously.
The Coens surround their stars with stellar support, including Geoffrey Rush as a hornswoggled cuckold named Donovan Donaly, Edward Hermann as randy real estate developer Rex Rexroth and Jonathan Hadary as a flamboyant, poodle-toting concierge. Billy Bob Thornton drops by as oil magnate Howard Doyle, Paul Adelstein as Miles' devoted law associate Wrigley, Cedric the Entertainer as disreputable private investigator Gus Petch, Irwin Keyes as asthmatic hit man Wheezy Joe and Richard Jenkins as Freddy Bender, Marylin's busy counsel.
Because everyone is at once amusing and disreputable, the Coens can engage in a no-fault ribbing of the privileged. Or those determined to be.
Ed Blank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 854-5555.
Images and text copyright © 2003 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.