In the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty, George Clooney plays a Los Angeles divorce attorney, Miles Massey, who makes Corbin Bernsen's Arnie Becker in L.A. Law look like Clarence Darrow. As an actor, Clooney here makes Bernsen there look like Olivier.
Hyperactivity and pseudo-suaveness - that's all Clooney has to offer in this mish-mash, with nothing in between. When he doesn't move every muscle in his face to express agitation or insecurity, he concentrates too hard on being debonair. The Coen brothers (Joel directs, Ethan produces) may want Clooney to be a screwball Cary Grant incarnate. But Clooney displayed more Grant-like charm and potency when he did Three Kings (for director David O. Russell), Out of Sight (for Steven Soderbergh) and One Fine Day (for Michael Hoffman). What the Coens get out of Clooney is a weirdly misfiring facsimile of Grant.
Whether Grant was playing a city slicker or an absent-minded professor, the silliest farce elements could release his physical grace and his one-time hoofer's glee in performing on his feet. Although Clooney throws himself into burlesque routines and swivels dance-like in the courtroom, there's no split-second timing to his spit takes, no acrobatic glee to his pratfalls. The process unmans him.
As his match in the marriage-for-money game, Catherine Zeta-Jones only has to flutter her eyelids or crack a Mona Lisa smile to steal a scene. Zeta-Jones is both a lush beauty and a savvy comedian. She seduces the audience partly because she makes it seem as if she's not even trying. In a role like this, voluptuousness powers Zeta-Jones' entire performing vocabulary. She articulates sexual attraction - or combat - with every tender or fighting syllable and shift of her mouth or eyes or hips. Her erotic authority overpowers Clooney's. This film's battle of the sexes comes off as woefully one-sided.
The fault isn't Clooney's alone. The Coen brothers contrive a few spectacularly funny bits and pieces but rarely get into a flow. (They share script credit with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone.) Too often they mistake facetiousness for slapstick invention or wit, and they don't follow through on their best ideas.
Most of Intolerable Cruelty unfolds in a world that's narcissistic to the nth degree. Wealthy men are marks for conniving women; the sincere feelings they share are rampant lust and greed. Divorce lawyers operate like corrupt samurai, children are only spoken of (not seen or heard), and what appears to be a pet poodle may turn out to be hired.
Ruthlessness in comedy can be cleansing. Indeed, the movie begins with bracing abruptness, as a TV producer (Geoffrey Rush) catches his wife with a pool man (their house has no pool) and Clooney, her pitiless legal eagle, takes the husband for all he's got anyway. Our antihero next represents Edward Herrmann, a real estate tycoon with a train fetish, against Zeta-Jones. Her zealous private eye (Cedric the Entertainer) has photographed her spouse red-faced and red-handed - well, just red all over. The outcome of that divorce sets Zeta-Jones on a course for revenge. Clooney proves surprisingly vulnerable for a marital attorney, even one staving off a mid-life crisis.
Too bad the Coens telegraph the major twist: their new motto must be, "We'll leave no paying customer behind." And when ardor for Zeta-Jones softens Clooney's edge, he comes off as an idiot rather than a lovesick sap.
Intolerable Cruelty generally ridicules the idea of love among the rich and infamous; suddenly, Clooney starts blaming lawyers for the curdled feelings that the rest of the film presents as a given. His satiric inspirational speech is an unlikely hit with an audience of divorce-law specialists. It flops, however, with the movie's audience.
The Coens cook up one anything-for-a-laugh flourish after another, but these would-be comic coups never cohere into a style. In one scene, the Coens indulge in a labored courtroom variation on the verbal confusions of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine. In another couple scenes, they encourage Clooney and Paul Adelstein (as his friend and legal sidekick) to stare at each other and scream like Drew Barrymore and E.T. - or Macaulay Culkin and his reflection in Home Alone.
Yet now and then, the Coens' cascading goofs and word games ignite uncontrollable hilarity. A courtroom running joke involving a judge saying "I'm going to allow that" pays off big-time. A sequence that puts together a hit man, Rottweilers, aerosol cans, asthma spray and a gun has the boldest, funniest visual punch-line since the hair gel in There's Something About Mary. Billy Bob Thornton navigates a wonderful sly turn as a romantic Texan, and Cedric the Entertainer injects entire sequences with his massive joviality.
The Coens' artificial, self-conscious technique too often forces their zaniness down our throats. That's when the gags really gag. But they occasionally do capture the risible non sequiturs of everyday life. When Cedric muses that men never grow up, "they just gets tubby," and Zeta-Jones call him "an aphorist," Cedric replies, "Yeah, I've always had ample proportions."
Intolerable Cruelty boasts wayward wit and headlong pace. Add a deft swipe at reality TV, Simon and Garfunkel sprinkled on the soundtrack - including "Bridge Over Troubled Water" played on bagpipes - and dueling quotes from Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and you have a movie that just about defines "mixed bag."