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Arts & Weekend / Art, music & theatre Print article | Email
Zeta-Jones leads a great week for gold-diggers
By Nigel Andrews
Published: October 23 2003 5:00 | Last Updated: October 23 2003 5:00

Surely they mean unbearable kindness? The Coens's Intolerable Cruelty is funny, pacy and almost unendurably pleasurable at a time when we are picking ourselves up from Coke-stained floors after bad boys, party monsters and leagues of extraordinary gentlemen. It proves that the brothers who made Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and Fargo, for chortling coteries and a wee few folk from the church of St Multiplex, can also lay it on for the multitude.

The film monthly Sight and Sound, guardian of our cultural purity, has flung up hands in horror. Broad comedy? Should artists do this? "Friday-night fun" it almost gurgles in distaste. And yes, this tale of a suavely ruthless divorce lawyer (George Clooney) and a serially marrying gold-digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones), butting egos and libidos in and out of court, does loudhail its larkiness. But forgive me. Didn't Shakespeare write The Comedy of Errors as well as Coriolanus? Didn't Wagner create Beckmesser as well as Brunnhilde?

The script sparkles, though not originated by the Coens (another crime against auteurship), and the casting is even better. As a slick-witted LA silk with an eye for money and women, Clooney is so perfectly suited that his role seems sewn on around him like Monroe's formfitting dress in Niagara. A propos of which: no one has worn clothes like Clooney since Cary Grant. Nor has anyone dispensed one-liners more dandyishly. The hero's proudest creation, a pre-nuptial contract "never penetrated", defeats every serial wife intent on lucrative widowhood except Catherine Zeta-Jones. Challengingly cast as a woman who weds older men for their fortunes, the Welsh Oscar-winner matches Clooney sass for sass.

Edited by the Coens's regular cutter Roderick Jaynes, who doesn't of course exist, being a sobriquet for the brothers, the film boasts the deftest reaction shots since Howard Hawks. Clooney's takes are an A-Z of touch and timing. Watch him in the main trial scene. He shows up witnesses as boobies - any actor could do that - but he shows himself up as a booby too while appearing to command the floor. That takes genius.

This scene ends in broad slapstick - "Objection, your honour, strangling the witness"; "I'll allow it" - but so did the best scenes in Bringing Up Baby.

Elsewhere, rest your ears for two seconds and you will miss a dialogue gem. (Clooney to hired hit-man about proposed victim: "She won't suffer, will she?" Hit-man: "Not unless you pay extra.") Rest your eyes and you will miss a double-take, a background detail or an entire supporting performance. (Geoffrey Rush's rumbled adulterer is on and off before the credits.) Pace Sight and Sound, this film is also a text with subtext. Clooney's "love is good" speech is clearly an intertextual kiss blown to Michael Douglas's great "greed is good" speech in Wall Street, with Douglas's very wife standing by to bless the benediction.

What a week for gold-diggers. In both Holes and Secondhand Lions greedy women seek hidden loot. In Holes it is warden Sigourney Weaver, playing the hostess-with-the-leastest in a boys' remand camp, conjured by scenarist Louis Sachar from his bestselling kids' book. Sorry, "young adults". In 2003 PC we are all grownups and can confront such harsh realities as teenage diggers spading a lizard- infested desert at Weaver's treasure-seeking whim, Jon Voight hamming it up as a rootin', tootin', hedgehog-haired, sunflower-bean-chewing southern guard (expect an Oscar nomination) and Patricia Arquette in flashback as the outlaw ancestor who started all this stuff with guns and gold.

The tale whips along like a sidewinder, with detour flicks into the past, and ends by hissily compelling the villains into surrender while letting the wrongfully punished boy hero (Shia LaBoeuf) slide back to square one: mum, dad and a happy ending for the deserving.

Secondhand Lions starts out more subversively and then collapses in a heap of corn. Mum (Kyra Sedgwick) is a covetous trollop who offloads sonny (Haley Joel Osment) on a pair of eccentric Texan uncles played for all they are worth - about 10 decomposing nickels - by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. Sedgwick hopes the boy will find a horde of cash. We hope the sludgily photographed, folksily scripted film will go away, taking with it Caine's southern accent, which hasn't improved since Hurry Sundown.

"There's no room for honesty in a healthy relationship," says Coles (Mark Ruffalo), the hero of Austin Chick's sly, insightful and sourly funny XX/XY, one of the best American independent films of the year. No jokes about chick-flicks, please, although three eye-pleasing women crowd the screen as Coles first messes up his romance with complicated Sam (Maya Stange) by essaying a me{'}nage a` trois with her pal Thea (Kathleen Robertson), then - years later - imperils his partnership with ice queen Claire (Petra Wright) when Sam reappears in his life.

We all know the facts of love. Passion and romance are sent to torment us and we bare our chests to the hot knife every time. It would be funny if it were not tragic, and vice versa. Here emergent star Ruffalo, the jet-tressed stubble-dark touslehead of You Can Count on Me, does a wonderful little-boy-lost act. His and his director's ingenuity is in making us one wonder, right to fadeout, whether Coles is heartless or brainless, a sexual cad or a romantic cretin. Perhaps he is both. Perhaps all men are. This insouciant movie hits every target without seeming to take aim at all. And I never heard a better line about acid-testing a relationship than Sam's comment on a cinema visit with a doomed date. "Hearing when he laughed, I knew it wasn't gonna last."

No one laughs during Abderrahmane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness. Life moves slowly in Mauretania; any slower and it would move backwards. But a sullen beauty beats down on this story, like the sun that alternately defines and disembodies shapes in the village squeezed between desert and ocean. The longsuffering lives line up for inspection: young Abdallah, who has been so long away that he can't speak his family's language; the Chinese immigrant's wistful karaoke; the young girl learning a music to match her yearning; the mangy electrician and his wide-eyed boy assistant. How many Mauretanians does it take to change a lightbulb? Apparently an infinity. The bulb's reluctant filament becomes the film's symbol of shy, fitful, ungovernable hope. A bit laboured but oddly beautiful too, like the film itself.

Fancy something crazy? I have not yet fully decoded Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle. The American writer- director's seven hours of experimental surrealism (10 years in the making) encompass demo derbies in the Chrysler Building, chorus girls high-kicking in the Guggenheim, doves attached to scrotums, all-pink Scotsmen tossing all-white cabers, high-jinks on the Giant's Causeway, dental patients defecating their teeth, Norman Mailer as Houdini . . I suspect it is about culture, ancestry, mythology and sex. It is certainly scarily captivating. The Cremaster website is open day and night. Contribute your own thoughts.

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