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Oct 24 2003



AMID all the Hollywood hoo-hah and the mesmerised swoons of his adoring female fans, it has gone almost unnoticed that the unreasonably handsome George Clooney has yet to score his first major box office home run.

Since quitting his breakthrough role as dishy Dr Doug Ross in TV's ER, Mr Clooney has chalked up a respectable CV carrying such moderate hits as Three Kings, The Perfect Storm and One Fine Day.

But, given that he was more than ably assisted by Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in the phenomenal Ocean's Eleven, on the solo front we're still waiting for George's really big one.

Now, the burning question is, will the Coen brothers latest offering vault our hero into the superleague? Answer: No, I very much doubt it. But, make no mistake, this above-average comedy represents a significant landmark in the career of a fine actor who goes from strength to strength.

My God, is Clooney funny as a Beverly Hills marital lawyer whose legal interests focus strictly on the cash rather than the malleable truth. And I mean belly-laugh funny.

So good is George in this occasionally brilliant send-up of the hectic Los Angeles divorce scene that his hilarious self-mocking performance rather exposes the deficiencies of his image-conscious co-star, Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The girl from Swansea certainly looks the part. Visually, Ms Zeta-Jones is captivating as she employs her stunning beauty to play a professional bride with a venal interest in the size of her many husbands' bank balances.

But when it comes to humour, I'm afraid Catherine appears to have undergone some sort of by-pass operation. Making people laugh is a mysterious, intangible talent that the wife of Michael Douglas evidently does not possess.

Although, to be fair, the former Darling Buds Of May actress had 'em rolling in the aisles with her side- splitting real-life efforts at London's High Court when she joined Mr Douglas to sue Hello! magazine for allegedly spoiling the £1m wedding they flogged to its bitter rival OK!

If only Catherine had tapped into that rich vein of comedy, perhaps she wouldn't have been so severely out-acted by gorgeous George. But out-acted she most certainly was. Almost off the screen.

Which is a shame because so much of this romp through the grotesque world of the obscene California rich depends on the many encounters between her calculating character Marylin Rexroth and Clooney's master of marital discord Miles Massey. That is why Intolerable Cruelty can only be classified as patchy.

I loved Miles's impenetrable pre-nuptial agreement which is so financially watertight that it has earned the rhyming slogan, "Only love is in mind if the Massey pre-nup is signed".

"There's just no wriggle room," he proudly explains.

After manoeuvring Miles foils Marylin's attempts to milk her philandering millionaire hubbie Rex Rexroth for all he's worth, an unlikely romance begins to blossom. But is it all that it seems?

Enter Billy Bob Thornton as Marylin's latest wonderfully wealthy suitor - Texan oil billionaire Howard Doyle, who loves her "la-a-rke a son of a bitch!"

Doyle's a hoot as he espouses that toe-curling down-to-Earthedness for which those from the Lone Star state are rightly notorious. Tipping his 10-gallon hat, horrifically unfashionable Howard is full of hopeless home truths such as, "Now, daets abayat as useless as tits on a boar-hog!"

But the main attraction remains that which draws Miles to Marylin and Marylin to Miles. And after the former Mrs Rexroth garners an extraordinarily huge slice of Mr Doyle's incalculable fortune, the way is clear for the path of true love. Or is it?

The trouble with director Joel Coen and his producer sibling Ethan is that the films they've made recently aren't as good as their remarkably innovative earlier offerings.

The excellent Blood Simple, the superb Raising Arizona, the great Barton Fink, the Oscar-winning Fargo and The Big Lebowski were breaths of fresh air in a homogeneous Hollywood world.

Forged on the halfway successful 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens' relationship with the refreshingly self-effacing Clooney - the only movie superstar who seems incapable of taking himself seriously - is Joel and Ethan's best hope for a glorious future.

But if they work too much more with the likes of the all too conventional Catherine Zeta-Jones and their producer Brian "Kindergarten Cop" Grazer, these brilliant brothers are in danger of being seduced by the mainstream.

And that will never be their natural home.


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