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Intolerable Cruelty (12A)
Joel Coen (100 mins)
Starring: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush
By Anthony Quinn
24 October 2003
There is nothing very intolerable about the cruelty in the Coen Brothers's new movie, Intolerable Cruelty; it just sounds that way. Even if the film were not a screwball comedy, we know enough about the Coens' parallel world to grasp that nothing is really intolerable, because so little of it is believable. By the same token, when a millionaire divorce lawyer toward the end of the film tells a hushed auditorium of his fellow professionals that "love is good", and that it is a nobler thing than tearing a couple asunder, we know from the assembly's ecstatic response that the scene doesn't really "mean" anything. Why would divorce lawyers applaud something that would do them out of a job?
One of the few things that isn't bogus here is the pulchritude of its two leads. George Clooney gazes ardently upon Catherine Zeta-Jones; she smoulders back at him; and the audience gawps at both of them. We can't help it. There hasn't been a screen partnership this good-looking since Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven, and before that since Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight. (There seems to be a pattern here). In his strongest bid yet to emulate the inhibited suavity of Cary Grant, Clooney plays Miles Massey, a super-successful divorce lawyer who takes one look at his client Rex Rexroth's gold-digging wife Marilyn (Zeta-Jones) and suddenly hears the strings of his heart go zing. Nevertheless, professional interest prevails, and Miles bounces Marilyn's divorce suit right out of court: she's not getting a red cent from Rexroth.
Miles's pre-eminence in his field is down to the famous "Massey pre-nup", a contract so watertight it's never been bested in a trial ("They spend an entire semester on it at Harvard Law"). Marilyn, though smarting from her last reversal, hires Miles to draw up a "Massey" in preparation for her next patsy, a Texan oil tycoon (Billy Bob Thornton), whose millions she wants to finagle. Miles obliges, and looks on with one trickster's admiration for another as the duped tycoon eats the pre-nup document in front of his wedding party - that's how deeply Marilyn has conned him of her "love". But she turns out to be playing a more fiendish game than even Miles could have conceived, and by the time this devil in a red dress has shown up in Vegas, the plot is corkscrewing furiously.
The odd and paradoxical thing about the film is how straight the Coens play it. There is no genre hitherto that these arch pasticheurs haven't bent and twisted out of shape, no mood they haven't ironised with their own facetiousness, and there was no reason to think they'd approach Intolerable Cruelty any differently. Yet, perhaps because screwball comedy is itself a heightened, stylised form of narrative, the resulting movie seems strangely impersonal. The last time they did screwball was The Hudsucker Proxy, a film even Coen fans apparently dislike. I wasn't crazy about it, either; but, with its visual trickery and freakish atmosphere, it did at least look recognisably theirs. Unusually for them, the script of this latest also credits two co-writers, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, which may have diluted the fraternal spirit, and their cinematographer Roger Deakins lights Clooney and Zeta-Jones as if for a Vanity Fair cover; their looks hardly need flattering, yet they're lent the sheen of demigods.
But come on, you might say, admit at least that it's funny. Certainly, it has comic moments, and at one late stage in the press screening it caused a small riot of mirth. I liked the courtroom scene where Marilyn's lawyer (Richard Jenkins), hopelessly outfought, raises an objection to Clooney's line of questioning. "What is it?" asks the judge. "Er, poetry recitation?" he offers weakly. And there's a scene-stealing moment when a French concierge is asked to swear an oath on the bible by a court clerk. "Mais bien sur," he minces. "No maybes!" snaps the judge.
Yet these jokes stand to one side of the movie; they don't feel properly integrated, and they never build, as great comedies do, into a rhythm. The big laugh at the end, involving a monstrous hitman named Wheezy Joe, is smart enough, but it comes in the middle of some very indifferent farce, the sort one might have expected the Coens to despise.
Maybe they do. Intolerable Cruelty feels like a movie that's intended to break into the mainstream. Have they grown tired of being merely cult entertainers? Their signature effects - sly movie in-jokes, visual hyperbole, baroque dialogue - are mostly held in check this time, and the performances also bespeak a perceptible air of restraint. Nobody will object to the glowing presences of George and Catherine, but neither of them is really stretching the comic sinews here. Clooney, immaculately groomed in suit and tie, has a preening, nervous vanity, and his trademark tic is to check his pearly whites in the mirror - a variation on his hair-obsessed convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Zeta-Jones has never looked more alluring, though she's hardly a comedienne, and the accent keeps slipping (you can still hear Swansea in the way she says "slandered").
I imagine that an audience watching this without knowing anything of the Coen Brothers will be reasonably amused, but fans who come expecting a full measure of their offbeat mischievousness will be slightly disappointed. And those who have liked very little of the work outside of Fargo and Raising Arizona will find everything in place and nothing at stake. In other words, a perfectly stylish and pointless diversion.