Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:40 - Released 10/10/03

If Joel and Ethan Coen’s Intolerable Cruelty had been produced by some unknown creative team, or one that had had only minor success in the past, it would probably be receiving much better praise. The mediocre reception with which this film is being met is not, I daresay, so much a result of its inferiority as that of the reputation the Coen brothers have built with such films as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. This is an unfortunate corollary of being successful—consistent excellence is repaid with ever higher expectations. So, in light of this, we must accept that Intolerable Cruelty, written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano, and directed by Joel and Ethan (who also helped with the screenplay), a marriage-and-divorce-scam comedy starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, may not be up to the standards we have come to expect from the illustrious Coens, but it is certainly no failure. I thought the film was cleverly written and well-performed, and, if not a towering success like those listed, at least an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, an L.A. divorce attorney who is so successful at his field, his self-named prenuptial agreement (“the Massey Prenup”) is famous for its iron-clad security. We learn of his technique in the courtroom when a beautiful and extremely shrewd woman named Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) attempts to sue her wealthy, eccentric, philandering husband Rex (Edward Herrman) for everything he’s worth. Thanks to Miles, she gets nothing, but in the process he becomes intrigued with her. “You fascinate me,” he admits when she appears some time later with her newest wealthy fiancé, oil tycoon Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton). Seemingly undermining her own obvious intentions, Marylin asks Miles to draw up a copy of the Massey Prenup to protect Howard. Knowing her gold-digging ways, Miles is confused as to why she would do such a thing, effectively preventing the possibility of her ever profiting from her marriage to this buffoon. But he soon understands, and his fascination with her grows to financially unhealthy proportions.

Whatever complaints one may have about this movie, the casting should definitely not be one of them. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones are certainly not going to pull any muscles stretching in these roles, as he has no lack of experience playing suave scoundrels (Out Of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven) and she just won an Oscar last year for playing a conniving, husband-killing sexpot in Chicago. So their work here is nothing new for them, and they perform well together. The chemistry is not spectacular, but it’s sufficient to make us care how things come out. Notable supporting performances include those of Thornton and Herrman, but also Paul Adelstein as Miles’s overemotional assistant, Richard Jenkins as his oft-beaten legal opponent, Geoffrey Rush as a cuckolded husband, Cedric The Entertainer as a private detective who gets great enjoyment out of his work, and Jonathan Hadary as a hilarious divorce court witness.

Although I am often the first guy to berate directors for not living up to their previously established potential (check my review of any George Lucas movie), I can also understand that artists, like everybody else, have highs and lows in their professional output. I can’t say I loved this movie like I loved O Brother, but watching Clooney and Zeta-Jones interact is suitably fun, and neither of them is exactly hard on the eyes. The supporting characters are funny in the way Coen bros. characters traditionally are, and the story is engaging enough to be considered tolerable. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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