Intolerable Cruelty

3 stars


2nd January 2005

The Coen brothers are part of that rare breed in Hollywood - a duo who are unafraid to take risks, who refuse to be pigeonholed into any particular genre and who maintain a wholly credible track record. Strange then, that they should choose to focus their attention on what appears to be a straight-laced romantic comedy, the kind for which the term 'screwball' was invented. But when you've got a pairing like George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones, and with the Coen's trademark irreverence, you'd be a fool for writing off Intolerable Cruelty as standard romcom fare.

Clooney, on sparkling form as always, is Miles Massey - a sharp-suited, smooth talking divorce attorney, a man who's name is 'synonymous with bitter disputes and big awards' thanks to his impenetrable Massey Prenuptial Agreement. Zeta Jones plays Marilyn Rexroth, a beautiful gold digger (irony, anyone?) with a penchant for silly old men with seriously large bank accounts. When Massey is appointed lawyer to Marilyn's felonious first husband after a bit of extra marital slap and tickle, the pair, bored with their unfulfilling lifestyles, begin to see a challenge in each other - her in pursuit of his money, and him in pursuit of her... substantial assets.

This being a Coen brothers movie, you can throw out your preconceptions before the opening credits roll, because even though this is about as mainstream as they get, Intolerable Cruelty still has enough twists and turns to elevate it above your average courtroom comedy. While the script is razor-sharp as usual (the brothers were originally brought in on the project to rewrite it, and ended up producing and directing it), Intolerable Cruelty's real strengths lie in its excellent cast, particularly the supporting players. Clooney is in full-on Cary Grant mode, effortlessly oozing charm and panache from every pore, gliding gracefully through every scene. While the jury is still out on whether Zeta Jones can cut it in comedy (and drama, for that matter), she slots in well here, particularly as it's her first time working with the directors. George, meanwhile, is fast becoming a Coen favourite.

However, there's definitely fun to be had outside of the two central performances (who, let's face it, were likely hired as box office draws first and foremost). Billy Bob Thornton is scarily proficient at playing a dumb oil tycoon, and his office scene with Marilyn and Miles is easily one of the best in the movie - his speedy Texan drawl making him sound like a real life Boomhauer. Elsewhere, such wild and wonderful characters as Gus Petch ("I'll nail yo' ass!"), Wheezy Joe the asthmatic hitman and Geoffrey Rush's sleazeball TV producer all ensure you won't be yearning for George or Catherine while they're off screen. While the script isn't exactly lined with laugh-out-loud jokes, it's these (and it loathes me to say it) madcap characters that keep the energy in Intolerable Cruelty running right the way through to the finish. Hell, there's even an uncredited Bruce Campbell cameo to look forward to.

In summary then, not one of the Coens' finest (that honour still remains with Fargo) and if you're looking for something dark and edgy you'll go home still searching, but it's always good to see established directors trying something new and different. It won't invigorate the romantic comedy and it certainly doesn't add anything particularly new to the genre, but if you're looking for an oddball slant on life, love and divorce then Intolerable Cruelty is undoubtedly a cut above the rest. That 100% record remains intact.

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