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Intolerable Cruelty

  Intolerable Cruelty
Catherine Zeta-Jones weds George Clooney. Two seconds after she realizes Michael Douglas is really old.

© 2003, Universal
All Rights Reserved

Miles Massey (George Clooney) is Los Angeles's sharpest divorce lawyer, helping hundreds of the very guilty get away with all their money intact. Hired by the flagrantly culpable Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann, "Gilmore Girls") to help judiciously screw his gold-digging wife, Marylin (recent Oscar-winner, Catherine Zeta-Jones) out of millions, Miles finds himself oddly drawn into Marylin's beauty and mystery. Once he realizes that he's head over heels in love with Marylin, Miles goes to extremes to win her affection, leaving himself wide open to her unscrupulous agenda, and not minding a bit.

The last time Joel and Ethan Coen got a bag full of money and lost control, the result was the 1994 financial disaster, "The Hudsucker Proxy." Retreating back into their creative cave, the Coen Brothers subsequently turned out tremendous films like "Fargo," "O Brother Where Art Thou?," and arguably their best concoction, "The Big Lebowski." These films were forged with a kind of integrity that's generally lacking when big bucks are involved. "Intolerable Cruelty" (IMDb listing) is the Coens' return to the theater of gigantic advertising campaigns, huge awareness, and gleaming stars that outshine the sun. A throwback to the witty screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, "Cruelty" plays lightning fast, with the filmmakers rarely stopping to catch a breath. While "Cruelty" has the dexterity of a classic romantic comedy, it's punctuated with the characteristically oddball Coen moments that the crowds have come to expect. It's big, impeccably light, and scored with pinpoint precision by regular Carter Burwell. So, why didn't I laugh more than once?

The trouble when the Coens attempt to turn a fairly standard vehicle into a weapon of their own design is that the two can rarely coexist in peace. I'm all for the Coen kook, seen in most of their productions, delivering big laughs and memorable moments. There is one to add here, involving a bumbling hit man who mistakes his gun for his asthma medicine. Yet "Cruelty," for all the bells and whistles the Coens place on it, never truly comes alive the way it could. The Coen touches, such as Miles' decrepit senior partner who can barely breathe, or Billy Bob Thornton's extended cameo as a flamboyant Texas oil baron, would work better in a "Coen Brothers Film." In "Cruelty," all the little asides stick out like sore thumbs, not even providing the laughs they are so desperate to get. A Coen Brothers failure is still ten time better than most Hollywood successes, but it's tough to get around the fact that, for as busy as the film gets, nothing very notable occurs, and none of it manages to strangle the funny bone.

Heading back into Coen territory (after "O Brother") is George Clooney, proving once again that if he bounces between working with Steven Soderbergh and the Coens for the rest of his career, he will reach unattainable heights as an actor. Filled with spunk, and with what can only be described as an unlimited-tokens-at-Chuck-E-Cheese glint in his eye, Clooney owns "Cruelty" from his very first frame. A crack comic actor, why is it that the Coens are the only filmmakers to utilize Clooney's gifts? Clooney delivers palpable sexual heat with co-star Zeta-Jones, but it's in the scenes where the actor slinks around the frame or goes bug-eyed that truly give the audience a taste of the picture's possibilities. Clooney is perfect, and the film should have taken his lead.

I've never been a huge groupie of the Coen Brothers, but one can plainly see what pictures on their filmography have truly inspired them, and what pictures they have tried to save with their style and wit. "Intolerable Cruelty" is very sadly in the latter category.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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