By Coen brothers standards, "Intolerable Cruelty" is a fairly unambitious exercise. Thankfully, a mediocre Coen brothers film still surpasses most of the movies in the box-office Top 10.
The film's greatest asset is leading man George Clooney, who previously worked with Joel and Ethan Coen on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Joel Coen directs, Ethan Coen produces and both write.) Clooney's deft work in "Intolerable Cruelty" suggests the comic performances of Cary Grant, another actor who did not allow his matinee idol looks to stop him from playing the fool.
Clooney stars as Los Angeles divorce attorney Miles Massey, a man legendary for never losing a case and for having crafted an iron-clad prenuptial agreement.
He meets his match in Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a serial divorcee on the wrong side of Massey's latest case.
Marylin might be the devil in a blue jumpsuit, but Miles cannot resist her rare combination of greed and intellect.
Clooney ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") shines as the amoral lawyer and pitches his performance at the heightened level one expects in a Coen comedy. He proves surprisingly rubber-faced as he works his eyebrows and mouth into a frenzy to sell each line.
Zeta-Jones (an Oscar-winner for "Chicago") is gorgeous as always, but her performance seems a bit flat compared to Clooney's. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to find the humor in her character as she is written.
Supporting players help to enliven the proceedings.
Billy Bob Thornton (the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There") is hilarious as oilman Howard Doyle, one of Marylin's matrimonial marks. Cedric the Entertainer ("Barbershop") is deliciously vulgar as Gus Petch, a private detective who approaches his job with a bit too much glee. Geoffrey Rush is effective in the small role of Donovan Donaly, a vexed television producer whose cheating wife is smart enough to hire Miles.
The movie's biggest laugh, however, comes courtesy of Irwin Keyes, who plays hitman Wheezy Joe. Wheezy Joe's ultimate fate is a sick joke that brings down the house. Tellingly, it also is the most Coen-ish development in the screenplay.
Aside from Clooney's performance (and his character's obsession with dental hygiene), much of "Intolerable Cruelty" seems like a generic Hollywood romantic comedy, albeit one with darker undertones than usual. The movie soars only when the Coens really put themselves into the material.
Press notes say "Intolerable Cruelty" first was written eight years ago, a fact that seems evident when a joke about reality television finally surfaces. The fictional show depicted is supposed to represent an outrage, but, frankly, it seems no worse than most of the shows that have been developed since the script first was written.
Plot: A lawyer tries to get the better of a serial divorcee, but then falls in love with her.
What works: George Clooney is wonderful as the hardened divorce lawyer melted by love.
What doesn't: By Coen brothers standards, the movie is a fairly unambitious exercise. But a mediocre Coen brothers film still surpasses most of the movies in the box-office Top 10.
Starring: George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Director: Joel Coen. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Rating: PG-13, for sexual content, language and brief violence. Where: Elmwood Palace, Clearview Palace, West Bank Palace, Hammond Palace, Hollywood 9, Holiday 12, Movies 8.
Lawyer Miles Massey (George Clooney) and serial divorcee Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have met their matches in 'Intolerable Cruelty,' the first romantic comedy (sort of) from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.