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Cruel? Yes. Intolerable? No.

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2003

SOME VIEWERS who go to "Intolerable Cruelty" expecting the kind of light, romantic romp that one television commercial has been trying to pitch it as may be tempted to sue for false advertising. It's not that they'll be disappointed. Producer Joel and director Ethan Coen's latest is actually a pretty funny movie, if you're in the mood for something sour. It's just not the Tracy-Hepburn-style love story it looks to be. Still, I mention the possibility of lawsuits because the film, a simultaneously silly and cynical satire on divorce and divorce lawyers, is so litigious I fear that certain impressionable audience members may walk out wondering just whom they can take to court, and how.

Set in a broad caricature of Los Angeles populated by gold-digging women who schedule lunches around injections of "butt fat" in the face and by the philandering old moneybags who love them, "Cruelty" is an equal-opportunity offender. Women, who are almost exclusively portrayed as schemers and bimbos, don't fare well in the Coen brothers' jaundiced view of the battle of the sexes, but neither do men, who largely come across as clueless boors or buffoonish sex fiends.

Except, that is, for attorney Miles Massey. As played with gleeful relish by George Clooney (or rather by George Clooney's teeth, which seem to have been given more screen time than almost any other part of his anatomy), Miles is not only Los Angeles's most successful divorce lawyer but, from the looks of things, its most eligible bachelor. Suave and debonair, with a encyclopedic knowledge of wines and the ability to quote Shakespeare on dates, Miles is experiencing a kind of existential midlife career crisis. In other words, he's bored -- that is, until he meets serial divorcee Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while handling her soon-to-be-ex-husband's (Edward Herrmann) case. Sure, she's the enemy, but her hot bod coupled with an evil intelligence "fffascinate" him, as Miles notes again and again through his clenched pearly whites.

Despite an open-and-shut case of adultery on the husband's part, captured on video by private investigator Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer, funny as ever), Miles is able to protect his client's marital assets -- not to mention really tick off Marilyn -- by revealing her to be the conniving, husband-hunting witch she is. That's thanks to an appearance by surprise witness Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), a fey, lap dog-toting Swiss concierge who helped her pick out her most recent mark while she was vacationing in the Alps. And, yes, if you're getting the feeling that the Coens, who co-wrote the sassy script with Matthew Stone and Robert Ramsey, have a thing for cartoonishly goofy names, you're right.

That's because no one in this movie -- not Miles, not Marilyn, not Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), the asthmatic hit man hired by both Miles and Marilyn to kill each other at one point in what turns out to be their courtship -- is a real human being. In the farcical tradition of "Raising Arizona" and "Barton Fink" (albeit slightly less dark than the latter), "Cruelty" is a sort of puppet theater. The characters do what they do, including mistaking a handgun for an inhaler in the film's most hysterical scene, not because it makes sense in the real world but because the wacko script calls for them to do so.

It's over-the-top. It's wild. It's filled with outrageous behavior all around as Miles and Marilyn alternately plot to ruin and seduce each other. But in its nasty, blackhearted take on contemporary coupling and uncoupling, "Intolerable Cruelty" has the distant though unmistakable ring of truth.

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- Contains comic violence, colorful language and sexual humor. Area theaters.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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