Intolerable Cruelty

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Intolerable Cruelty

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Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen brothers movie with a non-Coen script, but fans needn't worry. Though writers Matthew Stone and Robert Ramsey are credited alongside Ethan and Joel Coen, the film bears the unmistakable authorial imprint of the men behind The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? A return to ramshackle Coen comedy following the laconic noir of The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty updates the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s for a crasser, more litigious age. George Clooney returns from O Brother to deliver another great comic performance, this time playing a divorce lawyer's divorce lawyer, a legal warrior who has every reason to be cynical about romance and marriage. Though he's achieved godlike status among his peers, Clooney feels a void at the center of his being. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones, a glamorous professional divorcée who first brushes up against Clooney while he's defending her philandering husband (Edward Herrmann) in divorce court. Clooney sees her as the challenge he's been looking for, but she quickly shacks up with hillbilly millionaire Billy Bob Thornton, who makes up for his Man Who Wasn't There silence by playing a dopey chatterbox. Clooney's passion for Zeta-Jones is the engine that ostensibly drives Intolerable Cruelty's plot, but his deliciously narcissistic alpha-male is more convincingly in love with himself than with her. Physically, Zeta-Jones is ideally suited for the role, but the calculating chilliness that made her perfect for Chicago works against her here, rendering her far less irresistible than the film needs her to be. Though every inch a movie star, she's too much ice and not enough fire. As usual, the Coens stock the film with richly realized supporting characters, ranging from a hulking, asthmatic hitman to Clooney's zombie-like law partner, whose deathly pallor makes C. Montgomery Burns look vital by comparison. Unfortunately, all of Intolerable Cruelty's great supporting characters are male–the women are mainly gold-diggers, cheats, and shrews. The Coens engineer a funny, entertaining battle of the sexes here, but the preponderance of indelible male characters and less memorable female roles render it something of a mismatch.

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