Intolerable Cruelty

Oct 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

In their newest venture Joel and Ethan Coen present a screwball comedy about divorce among LA jet-setters. The film chronicles the romantic crisis of Miles Massey (George Clooney), the quick-thinking, fast-talking divorce attorney at the top of his game. Massey has the best of everything: a mansion, cars, suits, a jet — and a man to wax his jet. Suddenly, he’s plunged into uncertainty when he takes the case of millionaire developer Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) and falls in love with his client’s estranged wife Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The brilliant cinematography effectively exploits the gaudy world of Hollywood decadence and glamour, giving it an otherworldly sheen. The script is witty, with fast-paced dialogue and rapid-fire rejoinders. If the theme of Intolerable Cruelty is love as a con artist’s game, the writers are well aware of the most important part of a con: Tell your mark what it wants to believe.

Clooney is superb as the shallow, looks-obsessed lead male, mugging deliriously throughout the picture. Zeta-Jones, in contrast, is all cool savoir-faire. She might have been chosen for her box office potential, but she’s apparently afraid to show a wrinkle on her million-dollar mug. It’s a shame, because glamour and expressive acting aren’t necessarily at odds, as Clooney ably demonstrates.

Then again, it’s tough to measure up to the Coens’ typically bizarre cast of freakish characters giving over-the-top performances, including Jonathan Hadary as the outrageously pretentious Baron Krauss Von Espy, or Tom Aldredge as the Jacob Marleyesque senior partner who, instead of chains and lockboxes, is weighed down by intravenous drips and catheters.

Hilarious incongruity gags abound, with a sentimental lawyer bursting into tears at a wedding, millionaire lawyers uncomfortably lunching at a greasy spoon, or, best of all, the opening scene, in which an entertainment mogul drives his Mercedes through a California dream-world of million-dollar homes and pristine lawns, but sings along with Simon and Garfunkel, “I am just a poor boy.”

The Coens love riffing on Hollywood classics and recycling studio machine clichés. Can you catch them all? There’s the courtroom drama, the surprise witness, the battle of the sexes, the cat-and-mouse romance, the impromptu speech “from the heart” at a business meeting and the ex-millionaire now sleeping in an alley. Or of course there are the finer details, such as the maddening resemblance of the hit man to Lon Chaney Jr. It’s all there for film students and semiotics majors to have fun deconstructing.

Yes, it’s funny. At the end of the day, though, it’s all fluff. It’s a wild roller-coaster ride, but what great truths are exposed? That lawyers aggravate disputes instead of resolving them? That Los Angeles is filled with oversexed, money-sucking fatheads? That money can’t buy happiness? Like all roller coasters, after the thrills and chills, you aren’t dropped off anyplace new.

E-mail Michael Jackman at [email protected].