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Sullivan: Great Coen film is least Coen-esque
By: Steve Sullivan, Columnist October 15, 2003
Watching "Intolerable Cruelty," the latest from the Coen Brothers, is like bumping into a dear old friend who has lost weight.

      This smart, wonderfully goofy, modern day screwball comedy is the least Coen-esque Coen film. The story and dialogue aren't as complex. The dark humor isn't as dark. The trademark quirkiness is quieter. The Coens have slimmed down their style, creating what may be their most accessible film. It is definitely one of the year's funniest, and it has two thoroughly entertaining performances by the perfectly cast George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
      Clooney plays Miles Massey, a brilliant Los Angeles divorce attorney and creator of the legendary ironclad Massey prenuptial agreement. Miles is wildly successfully and rich enough to have a guy who waxes his jet. He is, as his office's ancient senior partner phlegm-ily croaks, "the engine that runs this foym."
      But, after years of representing warring spouses, Miles is bored. His life lacks challenge. He yearns for a case with a worthy adversary whom he can destroy.
      He finds the adversary of his dreams in the stunningly gorgeous Marilyn Rexroth, played by the stunningly gorgeous Zeta-Jones. Marilyn wants wealth and independence and intends to achieve both by marrying and divorcing silly, rich men.
      Marilyn files for divorce from her philandering first husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann, having a good time playing a silly, rich man), with plans to grab half his fortune. Rex hires Miles, who calls in a surprise witness at the divorce hearing and derails Marilyn's scheme.
      In an example of the film's sly humor, Rex tells Miles:             "My wife has me between a rock and hard place."                   "Well," replies Miles, "that's her job, isn't it? We have to respect that."
      Marilyn doesn't retain her adversary status, however, as Miles becomes fascinated and ultimately falls in love with the woman. He gets a surprise when she shows up at his office with her new fiancé, a talkative Texas oilman named Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton, who is a total hoot.) Marilyn wants to prove the purity of her love for Howard by getting one of those famous Massey pre-nups.
      Miles knows the marriage won't last and that he will someday have another opportunity with Marilyn. That opportunity arises in Las Vegas, where the two run into each other once again. Miles is there to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the "National Organization of Marital Attorneys, Nationwide," or N.O.M.A.N. The group's slogan is ". . . let N.O.M.A.N. pull asunder."
      While their storytelling is more straightforward than usual, this is still a Coen Brothers film, which usually means double-crosses and other assorted mayhem. "Intolerable Cruelty" doesn't disappoint. The film's very funny last half-hour, involves one more marriage, another pre-nup and an asthmatic hitman named Wheezy Joe.
      "Intolerable Cruelty" starts a bit slow, but gets clicking once Clooney shows up. He turns in a fine comic performance, which may have some thinking of Cary Grant's funnier roles. He gets some comedic mileage from his movie star looks, too. The character Clooney played in his last Coen film, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," was obsessed with his hair. In "Intolerable Cruelty," Miles is obsessed with his teeth, which he's always checking for whiteness.
      Zeta-Jones brings her own movie star looks to "Intolerable Cruelty," and they serve her and the film well. A screwball comedy can't work unless its stars have chemistry, and Clooney and Zeta-Jones have gobs.
      Coen fans will enjoy finding those Coen touches here and there. They can be found in pulpy lines like, "You want tact, hire a tactician," and in the character of Wheezy Joe and his uproarious fate.
      The Coens and Quentin Tarantino are known for their distinct styles. So, one cannot help but compare "Intolerable Cruelty" with this past weekend's other big film, Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1."
      "Kill Bill" is extreme Tarantino. It's almost pure action - an incredibly bloody, often amazing mix of martial arts, spaghetti westerns, comic books and a dash of the old "Batman" television series. And, it has a great soundtrack. Coming in at just under two hours, it is a draining experience. While it's just what you'd expect from Tarantino, "Kill Bill" feels like a step backward, too. Tarantino isn't exactly repeating himself, but he isn't reaching the heights of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," either.
      The Coens, meanwhile, try to do something different by doing less. They succeed beautifully, and without lopping off any limbs.

©Ames Tribune 2003
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