‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is Coen-lite

By BRUCE WATSON, Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2003 -- After making some of the most bizarre and original comedies of the last 15 years, Joel and Ethan Coen were due for a dud. But why, after mocking Hollywood's myriad clich‚s, would the Coen brothers make a film so steeped in them?

"Intolerable Cruelty" might be a decent effort for another filmmaker. It's a passable anti-romantic comedy starring two of Hollywood's hottest leads, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Parts of it are funny, but too much of it is intolerable and some of it borders on cruel.

It's little more than pretty people making fun of pretty people, and it's pretty sad to see the talented Coens sink to this level.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a cynical Beverly Hills divorce lawyer. He's smooth, slick and so successful that his airtight pre-nuptial agreements are studied at Harvard Law School.

Zeta-Jones is Marylin Rexroth, a cutthroat woman of the type that used to be called a "golddigger," back when this film's story line was considered original. She seeks out rich men, marries them, entraps them in adultery, then divorces them and gets all the goods.

Naturally, these two seem made for each other. And given their star status, the movie's plot is not hard to guess. But who could have guessed how predictable so much of it would be?

As if its stereotypes were stuck in the 1950s, much of the film's humor consists of watching men behave like "hubba hubba" husbands while their wives sit around the pool preening themselves and plotting revenge by lawyer. Funny stuff, that divorce. You wouldn't be surprised to see a snarling Danny DeVito step onscreen.

After moving from bedroom to courtroom and back again, with each moment more cynical and loveless than the last, we're supposed to believe that the two stars might actually fall in love. They don't - the cutthroat antics and legalistic tricks continue for awhile - but by the time they do, each seems like such a walking clich‚ that it's hard to care.

You can't blame Clooney or Zeta-Jones for the film's flop. Neither star made it big on comedic talent, a fact that becomes apparent as the film drags on. But each does a decent job in a limited role.

What's missing is the Coens' usual stable of fine character actors who made such films as "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and "Barton Fink" so funny.

Instead of John Turturro, John Goodman, Frances McDormand and company, we get badly miscast dramatic actors such as Edward Hermann and Geoffrey Rush, along with some unknowns.

Together the supporting cast turns the Coen's usual bizarre twists into seriously unfunny scenes that drag the film down. Only Billy Bob Thornton, whose arrival onscreen reminds us of what comedic character acting can be, offers a redeeming supporting role.

In the end, it all looks as if either a director or a screenwriter just survived a rough Hollywood divorce and wanted to get even, not with a spouse but with a lawyer or two. And the rest of us end up paying the child support, supporting a childlike effort by two brothers who, we can only hope, will outgrow this phase and return to form.

Rated R. At Cinemark.

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