Intolerable Cruelty (2003) *** 1/2
Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, based on a story by Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Stone and John Romano. Photography, Roger Deakins. Editing, Roderick Jaynes. Production design, Leslie McDonald. Music, Carter Burwell; Produced by Ethan Coen and Brian Grazer. Cast: George Clooney (Miles), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marylin), Geoffrey Rush (Donovan Donaly), Cedric the Entertainer (Gus Petch), Edward Herrmann (Rex Rexroth), Paul Adelstein (Wrigley), Richard Jenkins (Freddy Bender) and Billy Bob Thornton (Howard D. Doyle). A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment release. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13.
From 1984 to 2003 the Coen Brothers duo have made ten movies, all of them superior. No duds. Not even "just good" films. In the full history of cinema there have been a number of filmmakers who became justly famous starting with their first work. But I cannot think of any contemporaries whose record can match the Coens'. Each of their works has been an event.
"Intolerable Cruelty" is a comedy, and in many--yet original--ways a return to the "old" screwball genre. Ages ago, the publicity for the great "Ninotchka" was "Garbo laughs!" Now, and for the second time after the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the slogan could be "Clooney Clowns!"
He is Miles Massey, a power-lawyer whose fame and fortune stem from his iron-clad system of Massey Pre-Nups ( prenuptual agreements.)
The film's opening is a lulu. Then comes the winning of the hilarious case of Geoffrey Rush (superb) vs. his cheating wife. Next is the also hilarious case of gold-digger Zeta-Jones (as Marylin) vs. her philandering husband Edward Herrmann, whom Clooney represents. Miles wins again, but is enormously attracted to Marylin. She keeps her cool and remarries, this time with yokelish multi-millionaire Doyle (a perfect Billy Bob Thornton.) When that marriage too breaks up -- to Marylin's great advantage-- the besotted Miles marries her -in a howlingly funny Vegas ceremony. Hold it! The farce is not over yet. And I am not about to describe the events or give away the twists of this near-slapstick tale!
Still, I can't resist this: Clooney, has given orders to one of his underworld contacts to terminate Zeta-Jones. But then he adds: "She won't suffer, will she?" "No" replies the henchman "unless you pay extra."
"Intolerable Cruelty" fills its 100 minutes with yummy, unfaltering comedy-farce of wonderful variety, and with details that hold together in ways that would make proud Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks (in his funny vein) and several other laugh-getting filmmakers whose satirical works made old Hollywood unique. The Coen movie is clearly an homage to them and their genres, but neither a remake nor a copy-cat job. It is fresh in its originality and its entertaining cynicism. It is also a land-mine that cleverly puts down filmdom's love affairs. In that respect this is a thoroughly modern movie. Contrary to past generations, light or heavy romances are not of our time. The explosion of media has made love stories obsolete. We are bombarded with the stalking of celebrities - and their devaluation. The print and TV news hammering of serial, on-off-on-off pairings, marriages, divorces, and the like, has transformed all such contacts into the equivalent of frozen foods "to be consumed by date X."
Gone are the days when movie romances were taken at face value --- pictures like "Love Affair" with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, or even its remake "An Affair to Remember" with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. (The 1994 remake with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening was unconvincing. A sign of its times?)
The subtext of "Intolerable Cruelty" is intelligently topical, rich in supporting details, and a steady howler. In a sense, it exploits the saying that "It takes a thief to catch a thief." Which brings me to Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," and its male star Cary Grant.
We hear a lot nowadays about Clooney being the new Grant. This comparison is superficial as well as not valid. Grant, though of plebeian birth, created on the screen an unique, aristocratic persona. Clooney, who comes from a relatively chic background, is, more or less an appealing man of the people who cannot be typed. And so on.
"Intolerable" contains subtleties among its many out-front scenes. One of them is tailor-made to win the hearts of French audiences. At some point, the music track includes the singing, by Edith Piaf, of her superb "Je ne regrette rien" ("I regret nothing"), one of her best-known songs. It may be a throwaway touch in the U.S.A but it ought to work beautifully in Europe.
PS. Many realists (formerly "cynics") who watched this movie are wondering how long it will be before 34-year old Catherine Zeta-Jones divorces her real-life (assuming that Hollywoodians are real) husband Michael Douglas, who is 59 (and was previously married for three years). As the Monte-Carlo croupier says: "Faites vos jeux, Mesdames et Messieurs" "Place your bets Ladies and Gentlemen."