Intolerable Cruelty

October, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (uncredited)

Starring:George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric The Entertainer, Edward Hermann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, and and Billy Bob Thornton

What role does the producer of a movie play, and what effect does it have on the finished product? Those questions swirl around this latest effort of Ethan & Joel Coen, the writing-directing-producing duo responsible for a string of fascinating films ranging from Blood Simple through Fargo to O Brother Where Art Thou? Their work consistently contains spot-on dialogue that prevents their deliberately lop-sided characters from becoming charactures and plots which demonstrate a world-weary knowledge of just how bad things can get that stops a tad before achieving an all-consuming cynicism. The world may be full of people composed primarily of fecal material, but that doesn't stop this enormously creative pair from laughing about-and caring for-many of them. Yet as Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn't There demonstrate, the humorous is never too far from the grotesque.

Given that background, does the fact that this film was co-produced by Brian Glazer explain why the material here often seems to be under the control of the Farrelly Brothers? His productions tend toward the commercial mainstream; their work, (Dumb & Dumber, There's Something About Mary, etc.) doesn't so much unfold a plot as careen through the storyline in the hopes that enough amusement in one scene will gloss over its absence in the next. That kind of stop-'n-start tone emerges before the opening title in Cruelty, as the audience gets a slice of bedroom farce featuring Geoffrey Rush, a cuckolded producer whose early part in the story contains none of the Coen's light-handed competence; nothing in Rush's character permits the audience to care a fig about what happens to him, despite his clever role he plays late in the film's resolution.

The post-credits action revolves around Miles Massey, (George Clooney) a divorce lawyer so transparently venal the audience lusts for his come-uppance even as it admires those Cary Grant-good looks and smooth, self-assured patter. The scourge of L.A.'s divorce bar, Miles crushes his opponents so effortlessly and thoroughly that he longs for a real challenge, which comes in the form of a devastating gold digger, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) trying hard to separate her philandering husband from his net worth. Divorce, remarriage and "unbreakable" prenuptial agreements prior to subsequent wedding bells follow, with Clooney and Zeta-Jones trading shots like heavyweight contenders, all with the assistance of the usual menagerie of supporting players, (Cedric The Entertainer, Edward Herrman, Bill Bob Thornton) whose eccentricities produce the patented Coen juxtaposition of violence and humor. 

But it doesn't flow; bits and pieces are genuinely funny, (especially Thornton's first meeting with Clooney) the plot cleverly stays ahead of the audience's expectations, and the elimination of a hit-man in the climax matches Fargo's ability to make you laugh at precisely the wrong kind of development--but momentum never builds, and any number of scenes seem to have been included to simply pad out the 100 minute running time. 

Clooney once again demonstrates the comedic abilities he displayed in O Brother Where Art Thou; he inhabits a guy with blinding speed of tongue who's mental ability and judgment are three strides slower than he thinks they are. Ms. Zeta-Jones mixes her impossibly good looks, (and stunning wardrobe) with just the right degree of self-absorption to convince anyone she just might be worth making oneself a fool over-- but the whole never surpasses the ebb and flow of its parts; the result is a niftily contrived plot with appealingly-awful characters, done in by the episodic feel of the whole. The result is an example of two gifted guys trying to play Billy Wilder's game, (Some Like It Hot, One, Two, Three) and not quite pulling it off.

Is it worth seeing? What Coen film isn't? Is it worthy to be ranked among their best? Absolutely not! Is Grazer responsible? Who knows?  


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