McDonnough in Raising Arizona to charismatic devil Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink to sympathetic murderer Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn't There. Miles Massey and Marilyn Rexroth follow in that rich tradition, and although you may never come to sympathize with these characters, you will enjoy getting to know them. Critics of the brothers Coen have often said that they have no love for the people who inhabit their world, and that may be true, but it's still just so damn refreshing to watch a love story between people whose main concern isn't getting the audience to like them.
There are plenty of other enjoyable characters running around in this madhouse, from down-on-his-luck movie director Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush) to sad-sack lawyer Freddy Bender (the invaluable Richard Jenkins) to a bizarre character whose name says it all - Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary). Julia Duffy (who you may remember from the Eighties Bob Newhart show) is memorable as Marilyn's best friend and co-conspirator Sarah Sorkin, and Billy Bob Thornton's scene-stealing performance as a love struck oil tycoon is all the more impressive in retrospect. None are more instantly classic, however, than the dim-witted hit man "Wheezy" Joe (Irwin Keyes), a huffing, puffing brute that the Coen's camera is justly infatuated with.
The dialogue is purely of the His Girl Friday variety, thrown around an All About Eve plot, with a healthy dose of modernity that still manages to create a throwback film that feels like something Howard Hawks would have made if he were still alive today (and had been divorced five times). The Coens, along with co-writers Robert Ramsey, Matt Stone and John Romano, have crafted plenty of sharp banter for their actors, and Clooney and Zeta-Jones play off each other flawlessly. Meanwhile, the "Baron Krauss von Espy" bit alone should be set aside, stuck in an airtight, fireproof canister, and preserved for future generations to watch in amazement.
But what keeps this movie from reaching the comedic bliss of a Raising Arizona? What stops Intolerable Cruelty from coming within a hundred miles of Hudsucker's surreal yet razor-sharp skills of parody? It's difficult to put a finger on, but one can begin with the end - a convoluted resolution that, like the recent Down With Love, tries to be everything to everyone but ends up being nothing to any.
Next up, one has to consider the increasingly irksome "zany face" of George Clooney, who has lost the moustache from O, Brother but fatally retained every other facet of a character we've already seen. Also troubling is the Coens increased need to stretch, reaching too far for an unfunny Abbot & Costello routine about "sitting" before a judge and falling back on Gus Petch's catchphrase ("I'm gonna nail yo' ass!") about four times too many.