October 10, 2003
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'Intolerable' farce fails

By Gary Arnold

    Poorly contrived to take advantage of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as glamorous consorts in a romantic farce, "Intolerable Cruelty" is a fundamentally sour confection.
    The title alludes to divorce litigation, the professional specialty of Mr. Clooney's character, Miles Massey, supposedly the prince of divorce lawyers in Los Angeles. In fact, the plot is ultimately wedded to magnifying the importance of the legal innovation that has capped his career: the "Massey pre-nup," the document of choice for wealthy clients who desire protection against mercenary mates.
    Miss Zeta-Jones is cast as an aspiring mercenary named Marylin Rexroth, encountered when her playboy husband Rex (Edward Herrmann) throws himself on the mercy of Miles after being sued for divorce. Though smitten at first sight, Miles proves an obstacle to Marylin's greed by dredging up a screwball witness to tattle on her in court, a chaotic scene that really makes no sense at all. Director Joel Coen trusts to double talk and outrageous exaggeration to cover the shrieking implausibility of the confrontation itself.
    The incriminating witness is an outrageous priss of a concierge played by Jonathan Hadary, who testifies with a dog in his lap. The strong possibility that his story could be successfully challenged by Miss Zeta-Jones, a far more attractive presence, is disregarded in order to hasten the plot to its next stage. There we find the defeated but battle-wise Marylin scheming to get even with Miles, who remains eminently susceptible to seduction.
    The mechanics of this stage prove as defective as before. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, inherited this script from another screenwriting team, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Nobody bothered to repair the infrastructure.
    Marylin reappears on the arm of a new meal ticket in order to lure Miles into lovesick jeopardy, but her choice, Billy Bob Thornton as a prattling Texas oilman named Howard Doyle, is self-evidently suspect. Even if one grants the equity of Marylin returning the favor after suffering a setback from Miles, the movie leaves itself ill-equipped to rationalize the notion that both schemers are capable of changes of heart, owing to genuine mutual attraction. The handful of courtship scenes they share are tentative at best. Until Mr. Clooney confesses, during a keynote address at a legal convention, that love has been a conversion experience, neither character expresses a plausible note of vulnerability.
    The filmmakers are clearly aware of this problem, because they insert ruminations from both Marylin and Miles about the downside of being rich, celebrated and lonely, addressed to sidekicks played by Julia Duffy and Paul Adelstein. But there's never any reason to trust these remarks in the company of the Coen brothers, who have always specialized in misanthropic farce from a standpoint so detached that they seldom betray an emotional stake in the struggles and blunders of their characters.
    The brothers fall back on their first episode from "Fargo" — making ridiculous arrangements with a professional assassin — in order to slap a whirlwind finale on the tail of this ungainly and self-defeating farcical beast. Geoffrey Rush and Cedric the Entertainer, who had figured prominently in early sequences and then dropped out of sight, get belated encores as part of this rush to make the fadeout.
    By that time, it's obvious that the Coens have not set the bar very high for humorists hoping to get George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones into expensive wardrobes and playful circumstances on one pretext or another. Indeed, it's as if the idea hasn't even been tried yet.
    TITLE: "Intolerable Cruelty"
    RATING: PG-13 (Frequent sexual vulgarity, fleeting profanity and facetious episodes of violence)
    CREDITS: Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.
    RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

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