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2/15/2004

May divorce be with you

By Rob Lowman
Entertainment Editor

As Miles Massey, divorce lawyer extraordinaire in the Coen Brothers' offbeat comedy "Intolerable Cruelty," George Clooney's lips never seem to stop moving. Even in the dentist office - where we're first introduced to him - he's on his cell phone barking orders despite the fact that his mouth is propped open and his gleaming white teeth are bathed in ultra-violet light.

Known for his iron-clad document, the Massey prenup ("It has never been penetrated"), the fast-talking, emotionally cool attorney soon meets his match in the delicious Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has the goods on her adulterous and very rich husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann). When Massey is hired by Rex to defend him, he finds himself smitten with Marilyn. But being the shark that he is, he still deviously manages to win the case as he pursues her. Marilyn, however, stymies him by immediately finding another rich husband, who, being the shark that she is, she intends to take to the cleaners.

"Intolerable Cruelty" has all the earmarks of a classic screwball comedy, with its witty dialogue and fast pace. But it's filtered through the Coens' unapologetic love of characters who will stumble through life until they fall flat own their faces - undone by their own greed or laziness or some other failing.

Like their other films - "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - "Intolerable Cruelty" has a heightened, stylized tone, but it's often right on target, a funny valentine to those who have misplaced their hearts.

"Intolerable Cruelty" (Universal; $26.98) includes a making-of featurette, wardrobe featurette and outtakes.

Not-so-sweet Holmes

You wonder if the story of porn star John "Wad" Holmes and his involvement in the brutal murder of four people in 1981 needed to be told on screen. Ably and at times inventively directed by James Cox, "Wonderland" never tries to understand or illuminate its unseemly subject matter. Instead it relies upon a fascination with the perverse scene of drug dealers, porn stars and grisly killings.

And on that level it succeeds, mostly because of the excellent cast and the "Rashomon"-style storytelling that Cox utilizes. The details of the crime in which five people were viciously attacked with lead pipes in a house in Laurel Canyon (one survived) has never been agreed on. Both Holmes and a nightclub owner, Eddie Nash, were acquitted of the crime, although Nash later (2000) pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count. Holmes (played by Val Kilmer) says he was coerced into helping Nash and his cohorts gain entrance to the Wonderland Avenue residence. But Holmes was a notorious liar and had a cocaine habit.

Some of Holmes' bizarre life is woven into the narrative. For one thing, the porn king, who in the '70s had become well-known beyond the adult entertainment industry, had never divorced his estranged wife, Sharon (effectively played by Lisa Kudrow), even while living with his underage girlfriend, Dawn (Kate Bosworth). If you're really interested, there is a documentary, "Wad," that's part of a special-edition DVD of "Wonderland."

In one scene, Sharon tells John that their life together ended when he decided to go into porn. Yet she never could divorce him or cut him off from her life. She says she never understood why, which she confirmed in the documentary. Viewers of "Wonderland" may not understand why they are watching it.

"Wonderland" (Lions Gate; $26.99 for the regular edition) includes commentary by James Cox, deleted scenes, LAPD crime-scene video and the autopsy report.

Director's 'Cut'

Jane Campion's "In the Cut" has a number of disquieting moments, from its graphic sexual depictions to its graphic crime scenes and grotesque dream sequences.

Sex and violence are so intertwined in "In the Cut" - the story of Frannie (Meg Ryan), a New York City writer and teacher, while a serial killer is on the prowl - that the film plays out like a twisted hallucination. Some of the images will get under your skin, but many of them are repellent.

It's hard to know what Campion ("The Piano") is aiming for here. "In the Cut" is populated with a collection of walking psych cases: the hard-boiled and hard-to-figure-out detective who is investigating the case and who Frannie is attracted to (Mark Ruffalo), her ex-boyfriend and sometimes stalker (Kevin Bacon), her crazed hot-to-trot student (Sharrieff Pugh) who does his term paper on serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and her dysfunctional half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who lives above a strip club.

For Frannie, only words and poetry seem to excite her, though she's in danger and claims to be looking for love. Despite the ample amount of sex, there is nothing erotic about the film. Despite the violence, there is nothing to put you on the edge of your seat. There is something unresolved and distant about the storytelling. It reminds you at times of the bored men in the strip club. You wonder why they are so fixated yet look so dead.

One note: I watched the director's uncut version of the film, so I can't compared it with the theatrical version.

"In the Cut" (Sony; $26.98) includes commentary by Campion and producer Laurie Parker, the "Frannie Avery's Slang Dictionary" featurette and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

What rhymes with death?

According to literary critic A. Alvarez in his book "The Savage God," poet Sylvia Plath may have been playing a form of Russian roulette in her suicide. In 1963, Plath killed herself by sealing off the kitchen and turning on the gas on the stove.

Alvarez notes that according to what he knows, had Plath's nanny shown up in time, she might have been able to save the poet. Had Plath decided to leave her fate in God's or her nanny's hands or even to the whims of London traffic, we'll never know. But in Christine Jeffs' "Sylvia," the poet's life is presented with that inevitability of death.

"Dying is an art," Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia solemnly intones from Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus," as the film begins. Plath after her death became something of a feminist martyr, some seeing her marriage to the more established and highly regarded poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) as a cage that imprisoned her and led to her suicide. But "Sylvia" takes a more balanced approach, where Plath's manic, jealous behavior is as much to blame as Hughes' philandering.

Trying to dramatize the Plath-Hughes relationship was a difficult enough challenge, but trying to dramatize their creative impulses is a next-to-impossible task. Paltrow's strong performance breathes life into Plath, who comes across with a fierceness that is found in her poetry. There is no easy way to convey the poet's troubled psyche, but Jeffs and her cinematographer, John Toon, give the film a dark, foreboding look.

Interestingly, Alvarez is a character here. Played by Jared Harris, he is a sympathetic ear for Plath. A poet himself, Alvarez admits no one understands why someone commits suicide. "Sylvia" presents a complex portrait of a complex writer. Check out the movie, then the poetry.

"Sylvia" (Universal; $26.98).

A worthy 'Lion King'

Disney has come up with a clever follow-up to the "Lion King." "Lion King 1 1/2" - which brings back much of the same talent as in the original - tells the story from the perspective of Timon the meerkat (voiced by Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella) - sort of like history told from the spear carriers' point of view.

There are a few new songs from the pens of Tim Rice and Elton John and a few new characters, but Disney has kept the same high quality of the feature, even though this is straight to video. The two-disc DVD is also aimed at kids, with plenty of games and extra features.

"Lion King 1 1/2" (Disney; $29.99). Disc 1 includes the movie, deleted scenes and a treasure-hunt game. Disc 2 includes a trivia game, a virtual safari, a making-of featurette, a music video and other games.

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Rob Lowman, (818) 713-3687 robert.lowman@dailynews.com