Intolerable Cruelty

on October 10, 2003 by Michael Tunison
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The Coen brothers turn their dark screwball humor loose on the hallowed institution of divorce in "Intolerable Cruelty," a comedy less about true love than who gets the house afterward. With the attractively sassy George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in opposing camps, the resulting battle of the sexes is a generally diverting romp--if not necessarily a major standout on the impressive Coen resume.

Driven by the brothers' usual ironic twists and amusingly cynical view of human nature, the story follows Clooney's industry-leading L.A. divorce lawyer Miles Massey, who's famous for authoring the world's most ironclad prenuptial agreement but lately has begun to grow bored of the money and power success has brought him. Enter Zeta-Jones' Marylin Rexroth, an equally talented professional gold-digger whose ruthless campaign to strip a wealthy husband's assets stirs unexpectedly deep feelings in Miles' heart. Of course, it's only a matter of time before these two natural predators begin circling each other for what may be the romantic fight of their lives.

As for the sparks-throwing screen chemistry essential to this sort of piece, no worries there--Clooney and Zeta-Jones are flat-out dazzling together. Here's a pair of modern-day stars you could transpose into the glossiest Hollywood vehicle of the 1930s or '40s without embarrassing anybody. Enjoyably reteaming with their "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" leading man Clooney, director-writer Joel Coen and producer-writer Ethan Coen are on solid ground in nutty straight comedy mode (see "O Brother" and "The Big Lebowski," as opposed to their more ambitious "Fargo" and "The Man Who Wasn't There"), though the picture loses some momentum when it switches gears from witty verbal sparring and idiosyncratic character work to more slapsticky physical humor, as it does in the somewhat disappointingly conventional last act. Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton, Edward Herrman and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Produced by Ethan Coen and Brian Grazer. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief violence. Running time: 98 min

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