Friday, October 17, 2003
Far from 'Intolerable,' actors shine
Latest Coen brothers' endeavor brings best aspects of past work to often-tired romantic comedy genre
At first glance, "Intolerable Cruelty," the most recent film from the accomplished Coen brothers, may appear to be just another romantic comedy. The timeless battle-of-the-sexes theme, the famously charming stars (George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both regulars on People Magazine's list of the 50 Most Beautiful People) and the glamorous Hollywood setting -- all depicted in the film's trailers -- could lead the naive moviegoer to misinterpret the film as your run-of-the-mill, 90 minute, saccharine chic flick. But it's not. It is, in fact, delightful. Its mocking treatment of the traditional romantic comedy formula makes "Intolerable Cruelty" an ironic treasure hidden floating in a sea of B-movies.
In the tradition of the brothers' past works, the likes of which include such great comedies as "Raising Arizona" (1987), "Fargo" (1996), "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (2000), "Intolerable Cruelty" is brazen, ridiculous and hilarious. Also in classic Coen brothers style, "Intolerable Cruelty" derives its strength from an irreverent script, an able cast and the successful exploitation of regional and class stereotypes.
Originally written almost eight years ago by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano, and then adapted by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, "Intolerable Cruelty" really gained steam when George Clooney expressed interest in the project a few years ago. As the film's protagonist, Clooney portrays Miles Masey, a hugely successful but dreadfully bored divorce attorney with a romantic side. The viewer watches Masey snap out of his boredom when he becomes fascinated with a high profile client's soon-to-be ex-wife, Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The rest of the film follows these two as they chase each other in a deceptive game of legal and romantic cat-and-mouse that becomes ever more complicated and fun to watch.
One of "Intolerable Cruelty's" principle strengths is its cast, both the characters as they are written into the story and the actors and actresses who portray them. The complexity of the characters -- the extent to which they are stereotypical of Californians, divorcees, lawyers or what-have-you -- and the intensity of their various personality quirks and neuroses -- Masey's obsession with his dental hygiene is a great example -- is another aspect of the film that sets it apart from other romantic comedies.
As Marylin Rexroth, Catherine Zeta-Jones is captivating. From the moment her character appears on screen, Zeta-Jones is gorgeous and animated. Her sexuality (and ability to make fun of it) is reminiscent of the late, great Marilyn Monroe, while her grace and sophistication reminds the viewer of a latter-day Audrey Hepburn. It is easy for the viewer to understand Masey's obsession with her.
As Masey, Clooney is marvelous. He is not instantly charming (sorry, ladies), but rather somewhat sleazy and insincere, and certainly self-involved. As the story unfolds and Masey's character evolves, the audience grows to embrace his very awkwardness and emerging vulnerability.
The characters themselves become more extreme and more ridiculous the further from the core of the story they appear. Cedric the Entertainer is surprisingly good in the role of the goofy, tactless private investigator Gus Petch. Geoffrey Rush is a riot as the Australian TV producer Donovan Donaly. Jonathan Hadary's portrayal of the eccentric Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy -- who resembles an older, gay, human version of the candlestick from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" -- is unparalleled and will have the audience laughing out loud.
Finally, a side-note about the film's treatment of Californians is instructive. I had the fortune of seeing the film while on vacation in California. Had I seen it anywhere else, I would have been inclined to judge the regional stereotypes (the pool boy, the gold-digger, the plastic surgery addict) as a bit over-the-top. My vacation made me realize, however, that while these characters' traits as portrayed in the film may be somewhat pronounced, they are not actually as much of an exaggeration as an innocent East-coaster might think. Bottom line: People like this actually exist, and that's why it's funny.
When compared with the brothers' past films, "Intolerable Cruelty"-- despite the title -- is refreshingly light. In that respect, it is probably more appropriate for a wider audience than some of their darker masterpieces. All the same, die-hard fans of Ethan and Joel's work will be pleased to know that while perhaps more frivolous on the surface, this film is hardly hollow. On the contrary, "Intolerable Cruelty's" very intelligence is its greatest asset. True Coen brothers fans can feel free to add a star to the rating here given, as the brothers' films tend to get better with repeat viewings and intensified attention to detail. But just about anyone can appreciate the film's witty script, well-crafted characters, and talented cast.
Four stars out of five.