Intolerable Cruelty
starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones

review by Stephen Notley

Sure, love's great and all, but it hardly lasts in this world, and once it's gone somebody's gotta split the assets and make a killing. There's a big pile of money in the demolition of love, and in this deliciously commodified world we find George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones battling it out in Intolerable Cruelty, the new "conventional" Hollywood romantic comedy from bros. Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou?).

I say "conventional" because the Coens make their own conventions. They have a distinctive individual off-kilter point of view and a fascination with strange details and odd plot twists, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that Intolerable Cruelty is a hilarious and bizarre movie filled with good good stuff.

This is a romantic comedy built on the wreckage of love, so we've got Clooney as Miles Massey, a cheerful, charming, beaming, utterly amoral divorce lawyer who's committed to total victory, zero compromise, the complete destruction of the opposing side, the more egregiously unfair the settlement the better. So naturally, when he runs into Zeta-Jones as Marilyn Rexroth, an insanely beautiful gold-digger with a heart of iron, he falls for her. That doesn't stop him from torpedoing her out of the water in their first legal engagement, of course, but that's just foreplay to this couple.

Clooney is, of course, awesome as Miles Massey, author of the Massey Pre-Nup "which has never been penetrated," as is said several times. He plays it much like Ulysses in O Brother Where Art Thou?; that is, with lots of arch expressions, bigger than life, more like stage comedy than film, with big grins and debonair stylings. Think "Damn! We're in a tight spot!" from O Brother and you'll be on the right track. He's even got the same attentive relationship with his teeth that Ulysses had with his hair in O Brother.

Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones probably finds the role most perfectly suited to her on-screen persona; beautiful, privileged and heartless. She seems to be drawn to these amoral roles; indeed, it's hard to imagine her playing someone warm or empathic. But alluring? Oh yes. Certainly it's easy to see why Clooney's crazy for her as they fence in the courtroom, she throwing dagger glares at him, he catching them just below his eye and tossing them back. In the whole film we see her shield drop for mabye a second, really only a heartbeat, a glint of humanity, but darn it if those Coens don't know how to grab those moments.

The film makes some strange twists in tone as it bounces over Zeta-Jones' serial marriages and divorces. The film has much fun pitting them against each other, one-upping who's more cynical and calculating, so it's a strange shift when the two discover after building their lives on the spoils of love that their lives and love are, well, spoiled. Can the Coens carry the transition from making fun of love to bringing the movie around so we really believe they love each other? In a movie where the most profound act of love is ripping a pre-nuptial agreement in half, it's hard to be sure.

Of course, this is all main-plot stuff I'm talking about, and like any other Coen movie Intolerable Cruelty is packed with curious subplots and distinctive secondary characters. Most hilariously we have Cedric the Entertainer (apparently his name) playing private eye Gus Pitch, a self-described ass-nailer: "I'm a ass nailer! I see an ass, I nail it!" Rest assured, much ass is nailed. Indeed, there's a current of ass humor in there, maybe just to make the Hollywood people happy, but there's just something about seeing Geoffrey Rush getting stabbed in the ass with a Daytime Emmy that can get you on a movie's side right away. Add beautiful cinematography from longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, the Coen's flair for good dialogue and pacing, and laughs aplenty, and heck… why wouldn't you want to see it?