Review by Dustin Putman
1½ stars out of 4
The burgeoning filmmaking path the Coen brotherswriter Ethan and co-writer/director
Joelhave strived for since 1996's "Fargo," one of the best films of
that decade, has eluded them. While 1998's "The Big Lebowski" was
mildly amusing and 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was more popular
for its wildly successful bluegr ass soundtrack than the film itself,
most of the Coen brothers' recent big-screen endeavors have been major
disappointments. Perhaps motion pictures as original and all-around
brilliant as "Fargo" only come around once for most filmmakers. Whatever
the case may be, "Intolerable Cruelty" is a shallow and instantly
forgettable non-romantic comedy, a new cinematic low point for Joel and Ethan Coen.
Miles Massey (George Clooney) is the best divorce lawyer in town,
a wealthy hotshot who wins cases through swindles and lies. Marilyn
Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a venemous gold-digger who marries
rich men with wandering eyes, arranges to catch them in the act, and
then walks away with half their assets in divorce court. When Miles
is hired to defend her latest victim, soon-to-be-ex-husband Rex Rexroth
(Edward Herrmann), it puts him in direct contact with Marilyn, a tempting
force-of-nature whom he is uncontrollably drawn to despite knowing
he probably shouldn't be. Following the divorce of her third husband,
oil tycoon Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), Miles lets his feelings
for Marilyn be known. Now all he has to do is ensure that her reciprocal
feelings for him are genuine, and not just a part of her latest con.
Unlike the Coen brothers' usual oeuvre, this time they have paired
up on the screenplay with fellow team Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone
(2002's "Big Trouble"). Four screenwriters involved in one project
is rarely a good sign, usually resulting in a troubled creative tug-of-war.
Whether this is the case or not, "Intolerable Cruelty" has all of
the makings of such a problem. The finished product is severely uneven
and the dialogue hyperstylized and unnatural.
The romance between Miles and Marilyn is hindered in the process.
Whereas the characters of Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard in
"Fargo" were filled with humanity and given the chance to live and
breathe as real people, Miles and Marilyn are strictly one-dimensional
screenwriting creations whose every line of dialogue is directly related
to the plot. Without any apparent hobbies or interests outside of
their money-obsessed schemes, they share no plausible connection outside
of basic physical attraction. Why does Miles fall for Marilyn in the
first place? And why does Marilyn react by grappling with her crooked
conscience? Because without them, there would be no story to tell.
As it is, the story at hand isn't exactly one that needed to be told
in the first place. As intentionally nasty and meanspirited as Miles
and Marilyn are, director Joel Coen betrays even these failed intentions
in the final act by attempting to grow them hearts when it is so obvious
they have none. These last-minute pleads for audience sympathy are
unconvincing at best, and woefully misguided at worst.
George Clooney (2002's "Solaris") and Catherine Zeta-Jones (2002's
"Chicago") are impossibly gorgeously movie stars who have never looked
better than they do here. In a film that might have given them likable,
or at least interesting, characters to portray, this talented pair
could have really sizzled. Mark things down as a missed opportunity,
then, as Clooney and Zeta-Jones wade through paper-thin characterizations
and stilted dialogue. We never believe for a second that they are
falling in love, and so the picture's entire reason for being is admonished.
Some of the supporting roles are a little brighter, if no more developed,
with Paul Adelstein (2000's "Bedazzled") as Miles' overly sentimental
assistant Wrigley, Billy Bob Thornton (2001's "Monster's Ball"), as
one of Marilyn's conned husbands, and Cedric the Entertainer (2002's
"Barbershop") as tabloid photographer Gus Petch, showing the most promise.
As ill-advised and emotionally static as most of "Intolerable Cruelty"
is, fleeting moments of comedic inspiration manage to shine through.
Marilyn's wedding to Doyle, with vows written as if they were seafarers,
and a truly unfortunate mistake concerning a gun and an asthma inhaler
are funny enough scenes to make you briefly forget how hateful the
film is and how far Joel and Ethan Coen have fallen in the seven years
since "Fargo." Mostly though, you are forced to watch despicable people
doing things you simply don't care about for 100 minutes. The cruelty
these characters inhabit may, indeed, be intolerable, but so is this movie.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman