I always look forward to the next film by Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking brothers behind such classics as Fargo and Blood Simple. They routinely add their signature weirdness to anything they touch. So I was a bit skeptical when I heard their next film was about a lawyer. Not exactly the kind of material that lends itself to weirdness.
It turns out that the Coens wrote Intolerable Cruelty for a studio a few years back, and somehow the project wound up on their docket. At least that's the story they tell in the "making-of" featurette that comes with the DVD. Reading between the lines, with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leads, it looks like Hollywood wanted these guys to make them some money for a change.
The Coens do manage to imbue supporting characters with lots of quirks, especially Billy Bob Thornton as an eccentric oil tycoon who's not quite what he seems. Cedric the Entertainer and Geoffrey Rush also offer a couple of priceless cameos. As for the leads, it looks like the plan here is to recreate the old Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn screwball comedy chemistry. Clooney and Zeta-Jones have the looks (and great clothes), but they don't quite pull it off.
The action has Zeta-Jones vigorously digging for gold in Los Angeles when high-flying divorce lawyer Clooney thwarts her plans in court -- and is smitten in the process. He forgets everything he ever told his clients, Zeta-Jones sets her trap and (tepid) hilarity ensues. The Coens seem to pull their punches with the leads, perhaps not wanting to take any chances with high-priced, A-list leads. The result is a couple of characters who seem to have walked onto a Coen brothers' set from another movie. Clooney, who was great in O Brother Where Art Thou?, exhibits his remote, semi-smug style: He's not very funny or endearing. Zeta-Jones is really great in her part, but it's one-dimension vamp all the way.
While the Coens have made some nearly perfect films (like Fargo and O Brother), a lot of their movies lose momentum or are derailed near the end. They take chances, and they don't always work. Raising Arizona is perfect -- for about half a movie. Barton Fink takes a seriously freaky turn near the end. It's the same story here in Intolerable Cruelty, as the light tone is interrupted by a dark twist that comes out of nowhere.
If you're a Coen, Clooney or Zeta-Jones fan, this is a fun film and worth renting. But just about anything else the Coen brothers have done would be a better choice for the home video library.
Publication date: 02/26/04