Fri. Oct. 10, 2003. | Updated at 01:50 AM
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Oct. 10, 2003. 01:00 AM
Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney are like weasels at war in Intolerable Cruelty.
 
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Coens dodge the romance in no-holds-barred comedy

GEOFF PEVERE
MOVIE CRITIC


Intolerable Cruelty

Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer.

Directed by Joel Coen. At major theatres. PG


If you're going to take comic aim at a target as big and obvious as Beverly Hills matrimonial combat, the least you can do is what Joel and Ethan Coen do in their neo-screwball anti-romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty: spare no ammunition. In assaulting the culture of wealth, vanity and botox injection that attends the big-time divorce industry in Southern California, the unfailingly misanthropic brothers from Minnesota have used a bazooka to blow up a bed of tulips.

Starring George Clooney as divorce attorney Miles Massey, a smarmy, amoral, dental-fixated narcissist whose crowning professional achievement is the iron-clad, take-no-prisoners "Massey Pre-nup," Intolerable Cruelty is a kind of classic Tracy-Hepburn sex skirmish as rendered by the wiseguy oddball Hollywoodphobes who brought you Barton Fink. In the movie's opening scene, Geoffrey Rush's ridiculously ponytailed daytime TV producer — who is introduced croaking miserably along to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" on his car stereo — comes home to find his wife boffing the pool cleaner, gets stabbed in the ass with his "Daytime Television Lifetime Achievement" Emmy and winds up firing a massive handgun at the retreating interloper through his bedroom window. Lubitsch this ain't: call it a light comedy with a sledgehammer touch.

After losing one of those legendary take-no-prisoners settlements to her boisterously unfaithful husband (Edward Herrmann, as a man made horny by trains), Catherine Zeta-Jones's super slinky matrimonial serial predator Marylin Rexroth decides to take revenge on the author of the odious Massey Pre-nup. What follows is essentially the spectacle of weasels at war. Beautiful, well-dressed and fantastically wealthy weasels, but despicable creatures nonetheless.

Based on a script credited to five people — only two of whom have the last name Coen — Intolerable Cruelty actually manages to seem even more atonal, lumpy and wilfully eccentric than most movies the Coens are exclusively responsible for. It shifts from rapid-fire, His Girl Friday-like innuendo to ass-stabbing slapstick, and from Grand Guignol gross-outs to some very funny stretches of Machiavellian courtroom shenanigans. But Intolerable Cruelty itself wavers between being savagely funny — Clooney, manipulating his handsome face like a horny wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon, is especially funny — awkwardly off tempo and downright desperate; surely there are few things that call less urgently for satire than cosmetic surgery victims and old people with colostomy bags, but there you are. Then again, what other moviemaking team would have the brat temerity to make such snide sport of Simon and Garfunkel?

Where the movie's courtroom scenes convey the Coens' customary ruthlessness when it comes to professional pomposity and authoritarian absurdity, the romance itself never quite sparks. As physically beautiful as the mutually attracting Clooney and Zeta-Jones are, their scenes together never tease out the same kind of manic intensity from the Coens the moments in court do. These guys are far more interested in watching lawyers screw each other than their romantic leads.

Allegedly a project that the Coens were originally commissioned only to write — but which became theirs when Clooney expressed interest in re-assembling the O Brother Where Art Thou? team — Intolerable Cruelty ultimately feels like the result of two immensely talented smartasses only half-heartedly following through on a task they thought someone else was going to finish. But even a half-hearted film by the Coens is bound to beat to a more eccentric rhythm than most.

Not surprisingly, the first romantic comedy from these guys is considerably more convincing in the comedy department than the romance.

Additional articles by Geoff Pevere


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