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Intolerable Cruelty (PG-13)
Official Site
Director: Joel Coen
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ethan Coen
Written by: Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, Geoffrey Rush, Billy Bob Thornton, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins, Paul Adelstein, Julia Duffy

Rating: out of 5

When aspiring writers approach hybridmagazine.com, they must audition by submitting a sample review of a Coen Brothers movie, any Coen Brothers movie. I want to see that they can write passable English, but mainly I want to see whether they “get” movies. No points off for their opinions of the movie they choose. What better filmmakers to audition on than the Coens, whose many projects have all been quite varied and yet quite unmistakably Coen at the same time. Intolerable Cruelty will be the movie that breaks the tradition.

Intolerable Cruelty has its blackly comic moments, but fails to take us to that loony-toons Coen universe of, say, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, or even The Man Who Wasn’t There. Partly, the trouble lies in the Coens’ having to work with material not wholly theirs. They share screenwriting credit with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, who also wrote middle-mind fare such as Big Trouble and Life. Another problem probably lies in the Coens’ crush on George Clooney. Hell, I’m hot for him myself, but that’s no reason to make a movie, you know? That liking may have caused them to jump unwisely at the opportunity to work with Clooney again. They are good at playing off of Clooney’s rep for being oh-so-aware of his good looks and charm by fetishizing some aspect of his vanity. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? they made sport of his preoccupation with his coiffure; here they poke fun at his pearly whites.

Clooney plays a lawyer, Miles Massey, whose specialities are ironclad prenups and fantastic divorce settlements. He is a charmingly glib, heartless bastard who falls like a sack of hammers for Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), who is pursuing a career in serial monogamy among the very rich. When Massey euchres Marilyn out of a divorce settlement, despite the fact that her husband Rex (Herrmann) was caught in flagrante delicto, she decides to take this man down a notch. There are various twists and turns on the way to the resolution—of course the path of true love ne’er runs smooth—but none of them elicit that surprised gasp that is the Coens’ stock in trade. Usually these guys are like the Fleischer Brothers would have been if they’d worked with actors instead of cartoons—you just hang on for the wild ride while wondering, “What the hell were they smoking?” In Intolerable Cruelty, you’ll be able to see around nearly every hairpin turn from a mile off.

This is a pretty darn broad comedy, one that takes easy shots at LA matrons whose lives are ruled by plastic surgeries, quack anti-aging treatments, shopping, and general cultural wackiness of the sort that has only just recently netted them the governor they so richly deserve. And Miles is apparently president-for-life of N.O.M.A.N., the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide. Their slogan—“let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder…”—and other rather obvious jokes like this land with little thuds throughout the movie. The Coens also indulge their fondness for certain stock moments. They like for characters to look straight in each other’s faces and yell “AHHHH!” Clooney and Adelstein, who plays his sidekick Wrigley, do so here, much as Forsythe and Goodman did in Raising Arizona. And in fact, the only genuine love here would seem to be between Clooney and Wrigley, who wants to be Miles only slightly less than Smithers wants to be (or be with) Mr. Burns.

There are some excellent performances here. Edward Herrmann is ideal casting for the risible rich guy who’s married a golddigger; he’s just the sort to wear garters with his socks. Here, with his big goofy baby face and sputtering outrage, he channels Edward Everett Horton to a T. When Billy Bob Thornton shows up, we get the only real return to the trademark Coen dialogue lunacy in the movie. And there’s a thoroughly creepy turn by some centenarian-looking actor whose performance evokes Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein. On the other hand, Cedric the Entertainer and Geoffrey Rush are pretty much wasted. Miles Massey, moral relativist and divorce litigator extraordinaire, is a role tailor-made for Clooney, whose career can only benefit from stepping away from the ultra-cool leading man thing for roles that allow him to be both sexy and ridiculous. He is well matched by Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose attractions are equally devastating. Together they present a picture almost too blindingly dazzling to look at. But coasting on pretty people, no matter how considerable their charms, doesn’t make a movie. And in a Coen Brothers project, it’s just shocking.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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