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Intolerable Cruelty

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD

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George Clooney is a joke, and he knows it: Here's this wickedly -- no, appallingly -- no, insufferably -- handsome man, and in his best movies, he's thoroughly comfortable making goofy faces and inviting you to laugh at him. It makes no difference that he finally gets the girl (or whatever). Off screen, Clooney is a postmodern celebrity iconoclast who taunts the media to get a life and leave him the hell alone! But in his movies, he's like the acrobatic circus clown who juggles, too: He disarms you with his talent, so you don't know whether you should laugh innocently at his clown makeup or marvel at how he keeps his balls in the air.

In Intolerable Cruelty, the new movie from the soon-to-be-trademarked Coen Brothers (director Joel and producer Ethan), Clooney plays Miles Massey, Los Angeles' most alliterate and successful big-bucks divorce lawyer. If this movie were a cartoon, Miles would have dollar signs in his eyes when he meets Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann, clearly enjoying himself), a rich old bastard who plays choo-choo train in his underpants with his blond mistress in her red lace brassiere and panties. Alas, on the day we meet Rex, he and his age-very-inappropriate chippie are not alone in the bedroom: Out from behind a curtain bursts Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), a nosey private dick whose motto, which he loves to repeat over and over in different variations, is, "I'm gon' get yo' ass!"

Gus has a video camera, and he was hired by Rex's much younger (but not as young as his mistress) wife, Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a gold-digger who uses her looks as her pickax. Facing a costly divorce, with the videotape of his tryst as Exhibit A, Rex hires Miles to get him out of trouble. And you know what? He does.

Thus the grudge match is set: Robbed of her mondo settlement, Marylin plays on Miles' fascination with her and, with the help of a faux Texas oilman (Billy Bob Thornton), gets Miles to fall in love with her, and more. Complications ensue, but because this is a romantic comedy, everyone has a happy ending.

Uh, make that "romantic comedy." It hardly matters who produced and directed Intolerable Cruelty, although the movie has the most convoluted ménage of screenwriters ever from this usually impenetrable brother act: Five people, including Joel and Ethan, get credit for the story or script, with no more than two of them working together at any one time. At once an imitation of classic hardball comedies (Preston Sturgess comes to mind) and a parody of them (the Coens are deft satirists but shrill parodists), Intolerable Cruelty is an occasionally choppy hybrid that still carries the Coen Brothers' insignia, for better or for worse. The first half of the movie is often screamingly funny, and the second half, while still fun, tends to tumble into less successful Coen territory, like The Hudsucker Proxy (tolerable) and The Big Lebowski (cruel).

When will Joel and Ethan learn that they're way too smart not to let words and ideas be the centerpiece of their movies? (I'll tell you when: when people stop calling the migraine-inducing Raising Arizona a masterpiece.) The dialogue in Intolerable Cruelty crackles like a raging bonfire, with Clooney so adroit that you have to conclude it's partly genetic. (No director, however good, can teach an untalented leading man to be funny.)

"They never grow up, lady, they just get chubby," Gus tells Marylin when she sees the video of her husband's romp. "How sweet," she snarls. "An aphorist." And he replies, "You want tact, call a tactician." Later, at lunch in a greasy spoon, Miles' lapdog sidekick orders a "baby green salad." The stone-faced waitress barks back: "What did you just call me?" In court, a pro-Miles witness -- Jonathan Hadary, in a delightfully silly set piece, as an effete baron-cum-concierge, right out of The Third Man, who testifies with his Pomeranian on his arm -- swears to tell the whole truth with an affected, "Mais bien sur!" To which the judge testily replies: "No maybes."

This is golden Hollywood, when words flew by, so you had to pay attention. And yet, Intolerable Cruelty jests without relent about the culture of greed, opportunism and ego that fuels the California film industry of its setting. We've seen too many insider routs of show biz to care very much whether the Coens hit satirical bull's-eyes. All that matters is whether they entertain us smartly, like they did in the smarter O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or the smart-enough The Man Who Wasn't There. And they do -- even with their lovingly comical soundtrack (Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel, Edith Piaf, Big Bill Broonzy), and even (I have to admit) when it starts to slack at the end.

Finally, in the role of Marylin, there's Zeta-Jones, fresh off an Oscar, as they say, and once again biting off more than she can chew -- and forgetting to spit it out. About 15 minutes into Intolerable Cruelty, I suddenly realized that she doesn't pronounce her r's, so Gus becomes her "pwivate" investigator. With her voluptuous lips, bounteous figure and nutcracker thighs, Zeta-Jones is certainly good-looking, and not in that grotesque heroin-chic sort of way. But somehow a beautiful woman loses at least 50 percent of her appeal when she sounds like Elmer Fudd. I still don't get her, and I probably never will, in more ways than one.

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