Intolerable Cruelty. Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Joel Coen. Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Based on a story by Ramsey, Stone and John Romano. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, language and brief violence). Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Duffy.

Intolerable Cruelty

The Coens are hugely talented filmmakers, and their movies have been some of the most celebrated films of the past decade. They are also never afraid to try something different. Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Barton Fink are more serious films. The Hudsucker Proxy is a scathing satire. Fargo is an offbeat crime drama which earned many Oscar nominations and several wins. The Big Lebowski is one of the funniest films of the nineties. Their latest, Intolerable Cruelty, won't go down as being among their best, but it's still an enjoyable motion picture, and probably the funniest comedy yet this year.

The biggest problem Intolerable Cruelty has is that it lacks the Coens' trademark feel. This is certainly largely in part because the screenplay wasn't entirely written by them. Some of the jokes fall flat, and one running joke feels a little too over-the-top for the rest of the production. Still, throughout the 100 minutes, there are more laughs to be had than in any other movie to be released this year.

Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a divorce attorney famous for his "Massey prenup", a prenuptial agreement that has never been broken. The only thing he cares about is winning, and winning absolutely. During a divorce trial, Massey meets Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a man-eater who only cares about money. As time passes, the two find themselves crossing paths more than once, and a romance forms.

Both Clooney and Zeta-Jones are perfectly cast. Their roles fit each actors' personalities perfectly. Never has Clooney been better; as the laid-back, smooth-talking Miles, he is perfectly at home. Zeta-Jones is one of the most beautiful women alive, a trait she mixes with upper-class haughtiness to great affect. Occasionally, her Welsh accent slips in, but it's not really a problem. And the chemistry the two share is undeniable and impressive. Too few screen couples work this well together.

The screenplay (which the Coens rewrote) allows the characters to become more than conventional romantic comedy caricatures. Still, Marilyn is genuinely unlikeable up until only the final twenty minutes or so, and it's hard to root for her. That would be fine if Intolerable Cruelty was bleak or dark like The War of the Roses, but it's more upbeat than that, so finding it hard to like one of the leads is a flaw. However, because of Zeta-Jones's unmatchable charm, this only a minor quibble.

Intolerable Cruelty's supporting cast is strong. Geoffery Rush is delightfully flamboyant, and would certainly steal scenes if he was in very many. Cedric the Entertainer, as a private investigator, is also entertaining, but his catch-phrase ("I'm gonna nail your ass") is slightly overused. And Billy Bob Thornton, as Marilyn's second husband, manages to make an impression in just two short scenes.

Intolerable Cruelty is a good film, and it just barely misses greatness. Many of the one-liners are biting and hilarious, and the two charming leads are a delight to watch. But, while only a few minor jokes fail, one major one involving the senior partner of Miles's firm is consistantly grating and out of place. Still, this and the aforementioned problem with the character of Marilyn are minor quibbles overall, and are absolutely no reason to miss this film. I recommend it.

© 2003 Matt Noller