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Intolerable Cruelty   A-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton.

Review by Rob Vaux

"There is only one sure means in life... of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusionment. And that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money."
--Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

When Joel and Ethan Coen tackle a project, they rarely go half-assed. Every film they make brims with energy and enthusiasm, especially their comedies -- among which their newest, Intolerable Cruelty, has a respectable place. A piece of inspired lunacy with nothing on its mind but constant giggles, it benefits immeasurably from the two evil geniuses at the helm. The fascinating thing is how it revels in the worst aspects of humanity -- greed, selfishness, delusions and narcissism -- while still retaining a sheen of absurd innocence. In another era, this might have starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson; it's that fluffy. And yet, it is assembled completely out of the blackest, most cynical humor you're likely to find. Such a paradox could only come from the Coens.

Above all Intolerable Cruelty is screamingly funny, from the very first scene where Geoffrey Rush's king weasel TV producer comes home to find his wife banging the pool man. The script is a first for the brothers -- originating with screenwriters Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano rather than themselves -- and yet the whip-smart dialogue is utterly, deliciously Coenesque. So too are the characters, uniquely bizarre figures who seem to inhabit a universe all their own. In this case, they consist of divorce lawyers and their clients, the airbrushed elite of a dizzy Beverly Hills. True love has no place among them; big paydays are all that matter, and sex and marriage are the weapons of choice. Their high priestess is gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a luscious dish with every delectable quality obscenely rich sugar daddies could want. Only after the wedding cake is eaten and the prenup destroyed in a gesture of everlasting affection does she show her claws... dripping with poison and reaching for the trust fund.

There's only one man to take on such a she-devil: master divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney, behaving like Ulysses McGill's city slicker cousin). We first see him consoling Rush's soon-to-be ex-wife, assuring her that yes, even though she demonstrably cheated on her husband (and indeed jabbed him in the ass with his Lifetime Daytime Television Award), she is entitled to everything he owns. His record is perfect, but boredom and ennui threaten to engulf him and he lives in cowering fear for growing old alone. When Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) charges Massey with the impossible task of repelling Marylin's settlement claims, he finds renewed life. She is just the sort of challenge he needs: smart enough to cover all her bases, ruthless enough to abscond with her husband's loot... and desirable enough make an open play for.

The resulting battle of the sexes is tried and true, as the two parties trade barbs, jockey for position, and generally try prove who's top dog. Clooney and Zeta-Jones generate considerable chemistry in their jousting, which the Coens know how to milk without souring us on mega-star overkill. They also refuse to coast on our preconceptions, relying on a steady stream of sharp gags and a plethora of imaginative twists to elevate the material. Intolerable Cruelty actually uses the structure of a classic con, yet the characters are so open and naked about what they want that we the audience can't see it coming until it's right on top of us. That openness makes for some fresh surprises, and keeps the movie light and breezy as all such comedies should be.

As satire, Intolerable Cruelty can be a little stale at times. Lawyers and scheming wives are hardly new targets, and though the trappings are brilliant, the core never rises above Hollywood run-of-the-mill. It's a testament to the filmmakers that they bring so much to it all, both in terms of the gags and our interest in watching the characters. Despite the lies and schemes they cheerfully perpetrate, Miles and Marylin are strangely pleasant, allowing us to laugh at their folly without wearying of their flaws. Caring about them is perhaps too much to ask (the Coens certainly see them as objects of ridicule), but we enjoy spending time with them, and the rest of the cast (including Billy Bob Thornton as one of Marylin's would-be husbands) is never less than a joy. Intolerable Cruelty doesn't rank up with the Coens' best work, but it produces laughter in gushes and enough originality to ensure it won't be forgotten. That's what a little extra effort will do; we should be grateful that someone still cares enough to make it.

Review published 06.07.2003.

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