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Sun 19 Oct 2003
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The Coens and Clooney prove cruelty can be fun

Director: Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney
Running time: 100 minutes

GEORGE Clooney is the new Cary Grant. It has been said many times before, but nowhere has it seemed so strikingly obvious as in this goofball Coen brothers comedy. Grant had a rare ability to appear utterly suave and completely silly - often at the same time.

Think of his impeccable drag act in I Was A Male War Bride, his impromptu shower in Charade or his close encounters with a leopard in Bringing Up Baby. No matter how extreme the situation or how outlandish his behaviour, Grant never lost his dignity or his romantic twinkle.

Clooney matches that feat in Intolerable Cruelty as a jaded, slightly manic divorce lawyer, obsessed with his teeth and hopelessly attracted to golddigging hussy Catherine Zeta-Jones. An invulnerable warrior in the battle of the sexes, he is finally overpowered by the one thing he cannot resist - true love.

Not an original Coen brothers project, this still has their sticky fingerprints all over it in the quirky secondary characters such as asthmatic hitman Wheezy Joe, their love of eccentricity and beautifully phrased dialogue that is traded with all the precision of a Wimbledon final. When other film-makers try to emulate or honour past masters they often fail miserably. The recent Doris Day homage Down With Love is a gruesome case in point. The Coen brothers just have an innate ability to conjure up the ghosts of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks without dishonouring them.

Intolerable Cruelty has moments of lunacy to match the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers alongside tongue-twisting routines that defy logic and salute the legacy of Abbott and Costello. Highbrow verbal gymnastics rub shoulders with lowbrow slapstick antics, and all of it is so weird and wired that it remains unmistakably a Coen Brothers film.

Determined to marry for money, glamorous Zeta-Jones has found her sucker and reeled him in. Armed with video evidence of his infidelity, she heads for a courtroom settlement, convinced it is a mere formality until dapper Clooney is hired to represent the injured party.

Exposing her wicked scheming, he sends her off to lick her wounds but finds himself fascinated by her. She plots another lucrative union with Texas oilman Billy Bob Thornton. Clooney makes a living from broken hearts and bitter divorces. Naturally, it’s a marriage made in heaven and one that prompts a tale of twists and turns that grows increasingly elaborate and hysterical.

Lacking the intricate visual touches that have become a vital element of their work, Intolerable Cruelty is a minor diversion compared to Coen Brother classics like Fargo. It has more of the laidback groove one might associate with The Big Lebowski. Perversely, there are crowd-pleasing moments that even push it towards the conventional. The Coens would probably relish the fact that their idiosyncratic sensibility has a chance to connect with a wider audience.

Compared with the saccharine, formulaic efforts of everyone else working in romantic comedy, this film is a distinct pleasure, filled with the kind of weirdness that leaves you uncertain as to whether you should laugh or call the characters a psychiatrist.

A gorgeous-looking Zeta-Jones banters with aplomb and a gallery of grotesques shine as some of the supporting characters. But the film belongs to Clooney, who plays the fool and the charmer with polished, devil-may-care ease. The brothers are currently remaking the old Ealing comedy classic The Ladykillers. Does that mean that star Tom Hanks is the new Alec Guinness?

Released nationwide on Friday

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