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'Cruelty' is clever but cold

October 10, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Intolerable Cruelty" is so clever, so funny, so suavely entertaining that it comes as a shock to realize that it's not nearly as satisfying as all those qualities would lead you to believe. Despite its manifest strengths and multiple pleasures, this screwball comedy about romance and divorce finally leaves us stranded at the altar, caught off-guard by a chill we should have known was coming.

The sharp humor will not be a surprise to partisans of its creative leaders, writer-director Joel Coen and writer-producer Ethan Coen, who've spent close to two decades turning out a series of sui generis comedies from "Raising Arizona" through "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Though other writers were involved here (the story is by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano, with Ramsey & Stone getting a share of the writing credit), the film has the Coens' unmistakable snap and bite, which is a very good thing, at least up to a point.

With George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones working together beautifully as L.A.'s preeminent divorce attorney and the woman who is determined to get the best of him, "Cruelty" has the keenest satiric eye for where California culture is most ridiculous. At its best moments, this is the equivalent of a dexterous drawing-room farce.

"Cruelty" also has an eye for smartly drawn comic characters, whether they be smaller turns like the wonderfully named Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary) or picture-stealing ones like Billy Bob Thornton's splashy showing as the impossibly wealthy Texan Howard Drexler Doyle.

The film opens with one of its most amusing folks, TV producer Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush), classically driving through Beverly Hills in his spiffy Jaguar convertible, his faux hip ponytail blowing in the wind as he brings unexpected passion to Paul Simon's "I am just a poor boy" lyric from "The Boxer."

It's through Donovan or, more specifically, Donovan's soon-to-be-ex-wife, that we meet Miles Massey (Clooney), "a man whose name is synonymous with bitter disputes and big awards," a rapacious legal practitioner whose prenuptial agreement is so impregnable that an entire semester is devoted to it at Harvard Law.

Despite all this, despite having a cabin in Vail, Colo., and a man who waxes his private jet, Miles is having a "what does it all mean?" midlife crisis. But that doesn't stop him from taking on yet another case, that of real estate entrepreneur Rex Rexroth (a delightful Edward Herrmann), a man caught cheating on his wife who wants to avoid paying the price.

This is business as usual for Miles until he meets Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), Rex's not particularly forgiving wife. In a trice, Miles is smitten. When he says, "I am fascinated by that creature," for once he's speaking from the heart.

But smitten or not, Miles is not about to be bested by anyone, which is exactly how Marylin, who looks upon her divorce as her "passport to wealth, independence, freedom" feels as well. The lengths to which this conniving pair cannily and stealthily go to get the best of each other, the (perhaps excessively) elaborate stratagems to which they resort, are what take up the greater part of "Cruelty's" screen time.

Given that they are the two most calculating people anyone has ever met, it's clear, at least to us, that Miles and Marylin are made for each other. And what, after all, are classic screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby" and "Twentieth Century" but romances under the most hectic circumstances imaginable? Yet romance, a small but critical component of this film's plot, is where "Cruelty" comes a cropper. For as our protagonists begin to think about warming to each other, we find it impossible to warm to them. The Coens, brilliantly funny though they are, have always made ice-cold movies. They caught a break in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" one of their most popular efforts, because the traditional music on the soundtrack provided all the warmth the film needed. The music choices here may be impeccable (Elvis doing "Suspicious Minds," Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"), but the soundtrack is not as central to the plot and can't function the same way.

So "Intolerable Cruelty" ends up being a heartless screwball comedy, which is a kind of a contradiction in terms. In the heyday of the form during the 1930s and '40s, something like this wouldn't have been possible -- the kind of hip coolness the Coens exemplify was not a cultural norm, and the whole idea underlying this kind of movie and the actors and actresses who starred was that they were entities we had no trouble warming up to. Without that sense of connection, no amount of zinging humor can make "Intolerable Cruelty" completely satisfying. We laugh, and that is no small thing, but finally, even surprisingly, that is not enough.


'Intolerable Cruelty'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, language and brief violence

Times guidelines: Racy but never graphic; adult humor

George Clooney...Miles

Catherine Zeta-Jones...Marylin

Geoffrey Rush...Donovan Donaly

Cedric the Entertainer...Gus Petch

Edward Herrmann...Rex Rexroth

Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment present a Brian Grazer production in association with Alphaville, released by Universal Pictures. Director Joel Coen. Producers Ethan Coen, Brian Grazer. Executive producers James Jacks, Sean Daniel. Screenplay Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. Story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Roderick Jaynes. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Leslie McDonald. Art director Tony Fanning. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

In general release.

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