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Intolerable Banality

Coen Bros.’ Latest Marriage Needs Serious Counseling

By Jed Horne

Staff Writer

Intolerable Cruelty

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, and

Billy Bob Thornton

MPAA Rating: PG-13

I suppose there is more than just a hint of irony in watching a movie about conniving divorce lawyers and gold-digging wives and leaving the theatre feeling cheated. Intolerable Cruelty is the product of the unholy union between Joel and Ethan Coen and TV writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone -- a marriage of convenience, perhaps, but one that will hopefully end in a swift divorce.

The best scenario I can figure is that the Coens, trying to spark that flame that made movies like Fargo and Barton Fink truly great, got a little extramarital help with the screenplay. Stone and Ramsey -- poor writers, maybe, but not stupid -- saw what any 25-year old woman sees in a rich, brilliant, older man, and figured they could give their careers a little push.

The result is as bizarre as Anna Nicole Smith marrying that old guy: a plot dumb enough for TV, a script half The Big Lebowski and half JAG, and a few laughs -- although less intentional than at the expense of the movie itself. Even the polish of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones can’t hide what was clear from the start: these are vows that should never have been made.

Clooney is Miles Massey, a fast-talking divorce lawyer with a flair for the dramatic and an eye for the patsy. In the midst of a crisis of morality, he stumbles upon Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), a serial divorcee and unapologetic home-wrecker. The two circle each other like vultures, guessing and second guessing their intentions, tearing up and re-signing prenuptials, until finally (I’m not really giving much away here) they fall in love, whatever that means for two unrepentant misanthropes.

Like any Coen brothers movie, it’s the subplots and the quirky characters that are worth watching -- Massey’s death-like elder partner and Rexroth’s string of husbands are one more bizarre than the next -- but without the help of Coen regulars like John Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi, it’s not quite the same. Also gloriously intact is the Coens’ eye for a great name -- theirs is a world populated by Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, Ollie Olerud, Tenzing Norgay, and an asthmatic hitman named Wheezy Joe.

But where Intolerable Cruelty falls flat is in its choice of subject matter. The story, such as it is, is a flimsy backbone for a series of unoriginal observations: divorce lawyers are leeches, women who grub money are stupid. Clooney and Zeta-Jones are sufficiently viper-like and cold to almost make these otherwise obvious truisms interesting, but, again, they fall back on an uninspired script and amateurish film making.

So at the risk of flogging an already limp metaphor, here’s the way I see it: there’s about as much sense in watching this movie as marrying a pill-popping wench for her looks -- sure, the Coens’ name might be seductive, but underneath this one’s a real bitch. Better to keep your money.