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With: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer, Geoffrey Rush, Irwin Keyes
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Robert Ramsey, John Romano and Matthew Stone
Directed by: Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief violence
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/02/2003

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Cruelty' and Unusual

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joel and Ethan Coen's films work so well because of the crystalline universe the brothers create for each one. Each universe spins on its own delicate axis and operates according to its own logic.

Eight of the ten Coen films thus far have been outstanding in some way, some even near-classic. The two that fail have impurities in their systems. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was their first produced on a big budget for a major studio and included the formidable Sam Raimi as a co-writer. But somehow the mix resulted in an undigestible film, part sly satire and part yucky Capra-corn.

But at least The Hudsucker Proxy had clever, cannonball dialogue fired off by Jennifer Jason Leigh. If only the second failure, the new Intolerable Cruelty, had a smidgeon of that energy.

Only insiders know the truth, but Intolerable Cruelty comes with three other credited writers besides Joel and Ethan, and it's difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts. Worse, it comes attached to producer Brian Grazer (The Grinch), a man who diligently dilutes for mass public consumption everything he touches. Grazer's finest film is still ten miles behind the Coens' worst film (although that film may now be one in the same).

In Intolerable Cruelty, George Clooney stars as Miles Massey, a slick, charming and unbeatable Cary Grant-type Los Angeles divorce lawyer. He meets his match when the gorgeous gold-digger and serial ex-wife Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) walks into his office. He loses his head and becomes obsessed with having her for his own.

It's a kind of lopsided The Awful Truth (1937), a largely-improvised, unbearably funny divorce comedy that starred the actual Cary Grant. And even though the Coens are capable of such hilarity, the choppy Intolerable Cruelty never gets anywhere near it.

Consider the opening scene in which a hapless rich husband (Geoffrey Rush) comes home and wonders why the pool boy's van is parked in his driveway. The next five minutes are fairly obvious; we've seen this part a million times before. It was done better and much funnier in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

The movie has lots of scenes that come across as numbingly ordinary, which isabsolutely shocking for a Coen film. In one scene, Miles actually delivers a speech to his fellow lawyers at a convention. He rips up his prepared (cynical) speech and delivers an off-the-cuff one about the virtues of love, but it sounds just as canned.

Clooney does his best to wrap himself around the part and tries to give it the unfailing snap of his performance in the great O Brother, Where Art Thou? but oftentimes the snap comes out sounding like a thunk.

Thanks to genius cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There), Catherine Zeta-Jones appears more drop-dead beautiful than anything else we've seen her in since The Mask of Zorro. But her character is so damn icy cold that our gaze just slips right off of her. We have no stake in her either winning or losing.

Still, Intolerable Cruelty comes with a few vintage Coen moments -- such as a hired killer named Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) -- and more than a few giggles. I have to ask myself if this weren't a hugely disappointing film from two great American filmmakers, would it still stand up as an ordinary comedy? It does, but only compared to dismal recent fare like Dickie Roberts or Duplex. It's sad that the best I can say is "don't expect much."

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