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Posted 10/9/2003 10:19 PM
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'Intolerable Cruelty' delivers wicked fun
Intolerable Cruelty is a deliciously good time, enhanced by the big-screen charisma of its two dark-eyed stars.

The drop-dead-gorgeous duo of Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney are in the classic mold of larger-than-life movie stars, something current cinema rarely provides. Their sex appeal, considerable chemistry and strong comic timing keep the thin story humming along cheerfully enough, despite the predictability of the gags.

But one has high expectations for a movie with the Coen brothers' stamp on it. And the subversive quirkiness of Coen films such as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?and The Big Lebowski is less evident in this broad comedy. Cruelty adheres to the conventions of screwball comedy and has a few well-written, irreverent segments, but it fails to deliver consistently. At times it seems as if the actors — particularly Clooney and Julia Duffy, playing a vapid Beverly Hills wife — strain to wring humor out of uninspired material by speeding up their delivery to approximate zippy bon mots. One yearns for a bit more bona fide zip.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a divorce attorney who's so good at his job that his prenuptial agreements are the subject of a semester's study at Harvard Law School. Still, the thrill of battle is waning until he meets Zeta-Jones' Marilyn Rexroth. Prizing financial independence above all, she runs through wealthy husbands, dodges prenups and leaps court hurdles with the ease of a triathlete.

Both lead characters are intentionally cartoonish and humorously two-dimensional. Clooney capably plays Massey as both a slick operator and a vain buffoon whose obsession with his ultra-bright set of choppers runs throughout the movie. Zeta-Jones is the epitome of languorous glamour, somehow managing to blend a remote, icy-goddess quality with a limpid-eyed innocence.

We can't help but like Massey and Rexroth, but, considering their misanthropic makeup and the movie's satirical setup, do we want to see them end up together, or would we prefer something more cynical to befall them?

Several supporting roles threaten to steal the show. Cedric the Entertainer is gut-busting as Gus, a one-trick private eye, and Billy Bob Thornton is a hoot as a gabby millionaire oil man. But Jonathan Hadary is perhaps the most hilarious as the loose-lipped concierge, Baron Krauss von Espy.

There's daffy fun in the antics of Clooney and his overwrought legal assistant, Wrigley (Paul Adelstein); a silly kind of "Who's on First" routine among Clooney, Wrigley and Edward Herrman; and a comical bit in which Clooney scans the magazines outside the wizened senior partner's office, bypassing legal journals for a magazine called Living Without Intestines.

Intolerable Cruelty, whose original story was not conceived by the Coens, was in the works for eight years, perhaps waiting for the right leads. The material met its match, just as the beautiful main characters met theirs. Not brilliantly funny nor incisively clever, Intolerable Cruelty is still moderately satirical and laugh-out-loud enjoyable.