George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 'Intolerable Cruelty.'
(Copyright Universal Pictures )
Inside the satirical "Intolerable Cruelty," there's a Hugh Grant romantic comedy fighting to get free and light up the screen with easy answers and comforting emotions.
But every time the Grant film slips to the surface and threatens to turn the movie into mildly amusing mush, the Coen brothers zap it with a shocking dose of black comedy. The result is an intermittently hilarious but highly disjointed farce that always seems on the verge of coming apart.
George Clooney plays an upscale version of the fast-talking, grooming-obsessed escaped convict he played in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" His character, Miles Massey, is a rich, breathtakingly sleazy Hollywood divorce lawyer who is undone by love when he falls for a woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on the other side in an ugly battle over division of marital property.
Clooney has charm to burn, and to his credit - and the benefit of the film - he burns it, mugging for the mirror with his character's newly whitened teeth, trashing his own leading-man image. He once again comes across as a second-rate Lothario who wants to believe he is god's gift to women (and the English language) but doesn't quite buy the self-deception. Part of the humor in this self-mockery, of course, comes from the fact that Clooney is such a classically handsome and seemingly articulate movie star.
Clooney is terrific, as are some of the other actors, including Billy Bob Thornton as a stereotypical Texas oil man and Cedric the Entertainer as a private detective who loves to take legally damning videos of rich folks violating their marriage vows.
Unfortunately, the main co-star is Zeta-Jones, who, on the evidence of this movie, at least, is not a comic actress. Her performance as a stylish woman who marries and then divorces rich men is so flat and devoid of life it sucks the energy out of every scene she appears in.
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen did not initiate this project, which is highly unusual for the writer-director team, and three other screenwriters are listed ahead of them in the credits. This is your first clue that "Intolerable Cruelty" may not be as pure a Coen brothers product as, say, "O Brother" or "Fargo." A second clue is the name of Brian Grazer ("Liar Liar," "A Beautiful Mind") as co-producer, as solid a member of the new Hollywood establishment as you're likely to find.
The marriage of big-star Hollywood romantic comedy with Coen brothers subversion is an uneasy one. There are moments of stunning weirdness that seem to be unalloyed Coen brothers - from Clooney discussing a case while playing tennis with a machine to a shockingly funny bit of violent slapstick involving a wheezy hit man who wields both a pistol and a pocket respirator.
And the running gag of using Simon and Garfunkel music to represent irredeemable sappiness keeps building laughs throughout the movie.
But then the movie snaps back into the mold of a big-star, big-emotion, Hollywood romantic comedy, and the audience feels the lurch and is a bit bewildered by it. Perhaps because of the uncomfortable juxtaposition of styles, the movie seems, at times, unpleasantly cynical - as if the object of satire was not just the greed and ruthlessness of the rich and famous, but the mere notion of love itself. The Coen brothers may feed on laying bare human hypocrisy, but they've never before seemed cynical.
"Intolerable Cruelty" is well worth seeing for the frequent jolts of edgy black humor and for fine performances by Clooney and most of the other actors. And it's welcome because there are so few comedies these days for grown-ups.
But I suspect I'm not alone among Coen brothers fans in hoping the lads will now make their escape from the grips of big-time Hollywood and return to their own devious devices.
*** (out of four)
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)
Running time: 1:40