Intolerable Cruelty, a cynical screwball comedy about love and marriage that matches a vain divorce lawyer (George Clooney) against the victim of one of his most lopsided settlements (Catherine Zeta-Jones), may be the most experimental Coen Brothers film to date.
It's straightforward and relatively restrained. It lacks stylistic excesses and oddball flourishes, and it seems relatively free of the private symbols and allusions encoded into most Coen projects. In fact, it's almost a "normal" movie. For the Coens, this qualifies as an experiment.
Those unimpressed by the meticulous preciousness and self-conscious cleverness of such Coen cult objects as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski may find Intolerable Cruelty a surprising delight. Longtime Coen fans, however, may be disappointed by the new film's mainstream appeal, apparently a function of their status as filmmakers-for-hire for Brian Grazer, the producer best known for his long-running association with director Ron Howard. In fact, the Coens at times appear to be satirizing the conventions of the typical Hollywood comedy, as when sappy music plays during "serious" moments or when the cliched moment-of-surprise sound effect of a needle scratching a record is heard twice in the film.
As in almost every movie directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen and co-written by the brothers (in this case, three other writers also receive writing credit), the characters are pretty much caricatures, but fun ones. In O Brother, Clooney was obsessed with his hair; here, it's the whiteness of his teeth. The supporting cast includes Billy Bob Thornton as a dull-seeming Texan, Geoffrey Rush as a manic soap opera producer, Edward Herrmann as a philanderer named "Rex Rexroth" and Cedric the Entertainer as a private detective who specializes in obtaining embarrassing videotape.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that when I saw this film in preview, the reels were out of order, requiring me to piece the story together in my mind as I watched, which no doubt interfered with my enjoyment. So feel free, if you'd like, to notch this review up to three stars to make up for that snafu.
Star ratings: Zero stars - stay home. One star - only if you're desperate. Two stars - a mild entertainment. Three stars - good stuff. Four stars - don't miss it.
- John Beifuss: 529-2394