Splitsville's a Nice Place To Visit in 'Intolerable Cruelty'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, October 10, 2003

The courtroom comedy "Intolerable Cruelty" has an interesting lineage. Written by a couple of Hollywood screenwriters for Ron Howard's production company, the script was sent to Joel and Ethan Coen for some punching up; one thing led to another and Joel wound up agreeing to direct the picture. Since then, one question has consumed the minds of hard-core film fans following the story: Between the mainstream, respectable if often blah Howard and the literate, offbeat, often dark Coens, who would get custody of the picture?

The answer is that the Coens walk off with "Intolerable Cruelty" without a brainy quip, quirky set piece or cockeyed film reference left on the cutting-room floor. A goofy, sharp-tongued romantic sparring session, "Intolerable Cruelty" harks back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, even as it makes full use of big Hollywood production values and contemporary vernacular. (The film's signature line is about women nailing men's posteriors to the wall, except they don't say "posterior.") Smart, silly, splenetic and a bit smug, it's a movie that might put a viewer's teeth on edge were it not for its winning lead performances. Indeed, on second thought, perhaps the real winners in the custody battle are George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

They play a couple that Cary Grant and Carole Lombard might have portrayed in another time and place: Miles Massey (Clooney) is a superstar divorce lawyer -- a man, one colleague says proudly, "whose name is synonymous with bitter disputes and big awards." Wealthy, gorgeous, powerful -- of course, Miles isn't really happy. He needs a new challenge, a tiger to tame, a ziggurat to climb. Enter Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), a gold digger whose MO consists of marrying well and divorcing better. When the two meet, it's not a battle of the wills as much as a battle of the blind trusts, negotiated settlements and -- most important of all -- prenuptial agreements.

The prenup is a recurring leitmotif in "Intolerable Cruelty," which like many previous Coen films is a regional portrait, in this case of Los Angeles in all its palm-trees-Pilates-and-pool-boys excess. ("That's my Daytime Television Lifetime Achievement Award!" a bumptious producer played by Geoffrey Rush screams early on.) Miles is famous for his impenetrable prenup -- it's given a full semester at Harvard Law -- and at various points during the film characters will rip it up as a profession of true love while they plot their next act of revenge and larceny.

Fans of such Coen brothers comedies as "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" will cotton to "Intolerable Cruelty," in which the filmmakers work at their zaniest and meanest. Tuned to the cadences of Hecht and Sturges, the movie is filled with silly names and corny one-liners, as well as some priceless sight gags, among them Miles apathetically playing tennis with a ball machine and the comic disposition of an asthmatic hit man named Wheezy Joe. The lines come fast and furious, delivered with crackling, percussive velocity, and the Coens inject their usual absurdist touches, such as the Scottish wedding chapel in Las Vegas where a man on the bagpipes plays "Bridge Over Troubled Water" during a service.

There's more -- and more, and more -- which would not necessarily be a good thing if Clooney and Zeta-Jones weren't the lilies that are being gilded. The more preposterous the dialogue and situations, the more effortlessly they seem to carry them, and their physical chemistry is unmistakable. Another of the film's running jokes is Miles's vanity, especially when it comes to his teeth, and it plays not only as a comment on the congenital narcissism of movie stars but on the audience's gaze as well. Whether he's staring dumbfounded at Zeta-Jones or checking out his own choppers in the back of a soup spoon, Clooney seems just as prone as the rest of us to the rapture of such superhuman beauty.

Clooney and Zeta-Jones are supremely stunning, and nimble enough to toss off the Coens' constant inside jokes with assured good humor. (There's even a neat little riff on Zeta-Jones's real-life husband, Michael Douglas, when Miles makes a speech to his fellow divorce lawyers positing the radical notion that "Love is good!" Take that, Gordon Gekko!) Perhaps most important, they make what could have been an insufferably forced, self-conscious and cynical movie into something sweet, self-effacing and wry. Rarely has disenchantment been so enchanting.

Intolerable Cruelty (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief violence.

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