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    Intolerable Cruelty

    Intolerable is right

    The once-brilliant Coen brothers mail in another one in the form of the mediocre screwball romance "Intolerable Cruelty."


    There was a time, probably around 1998 when "The Big Lebowski" bowled into theaters, when I truly believed that a lackluster Coen Brothers movie still stood head and shoulders above your typical Hollywood "A" product. I felt the same way two years later when their "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" surfaced. And I convinced myself further a year later following the release of "The Man Who Wasn't There."

    Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
    Written by: Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, John Romano, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen.
    Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Duffy.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    But I don't believe that anymore.

    "Intolerable Cruelty," a film that is occasionally cruel and almost entirely intolerable, nails the Coens' coffin well and truly shut. It illustrates, once and for all, how the mighty have fallen. And it confirms the suspicions I had about their previous two efforts — my instincts were good after all.

    The perfect "Fargo" (a quintessential Coen Brothers movie that I enjoyed again the other night) ends with the standard disclaimer that any resemblance between real people living or dead is purely coincidental (turns out their "based on a true story" opener was pure Coen hokum). Likewise, any resemblance between "Intolerable Cruelty" and a Coen Brothers movie is also purely coincidental. OK, so George Clooney, as super slick divorce attorney Miles Massey, pretty much plays the same character he played in "O Brother..." — there's one similarity. Ulysses Everett McGill was a dapper sort obsessed with his hair; in "Cruelty," Miles is obsessed with his dental work. But there's little else that reminded me I was in Coen territory.

    Delicious dialogue has always been a Coen forte yet there's no lather worth working ourselves up into here.  

    While Miles is a stock Coen rehash already, Clooney, at least, relishes the opportunity to embellish a former character and his ebullient performance is one of the film's few saving graces. The other is Catherine Zeta-Jones. She's a knockout — and drop-dead gorgeous — as cold-blooded gold digger Marylin Rexroth whom Miles falls for. Hard. Supporting characters (played by Edward Herrmann, Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton, and Julia Duffy to name a few) come and go like a neap tide but they're mostly unmemorable, like Carter Burwell's score or Roger Deakins' cinematography (Coen regulars these).

    "Intolerable Cruelty" is supposed to be a screwball romance in that Preston Sturges mold, although to say that is an insult to Sturges. Part of the problem might be that the story (and subsequent screenplay) is not, for the first time, credited solely to the Coens (although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone are pseudonyms for the duplicitous pair). Delicious dialogue has always been a Coen forte yet there's no lather worth working ourselves up into here. Even their trademark wit is largely absent. There are a few funny lines but mostly it's painful going — the opening sequence, for example, which features top-billed Geoffrey Rush, is one of the worst pre-credits sequences I have seen in decades. Rush quickly disappears from the scene only to re-emerge in two 15-second spots later on in the film. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" star's truncated role might be telling — perhaps nervous executives were as dissatisfied with the film as I was.

    For fans of creative cinema, let's hope the heavy-on-style, heavy-on-smugness "Intolerable Cruelty" is simply a bump in the road for the Coens and that their next film (a remake of the classic Ealing Studios black comedy "The Ladykillers") will re-establish their reputation as two of today's most innovative filmmakers. Otherwise I might be forced to rent "Raising Arizona" for the gazillionth time.

    OCTOBER 14, 2003

    Reader comments on Intolerable Cruelty:

  • Damn   from A.D., Jun 11, 2005

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