Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty (12A)

A new Coen Brothers film is always memorable, but Intolerable Cruelty lingers in the grey matter for all the wrong reasons.

This throwback to the classic screwball comedies of the past has something wrong with it from the off: it was not written solely by the Coens. Instead the screenplay, by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone was kicking around for years before it was dusted off and given the Coen touch.

Unfortunately that touch is a fleeting one, and whatever Joel and Ethan brought to the picture is lost under the weight of the other writers’ clumsiness. The main issue here is what is Coen-esque and what is actually by the brothers. As in all collaborations it is simplistic (and often incorrect) to assume that the ‘best bits’ can be attributed to those with a proven track record. In the case of Intolerable Cruelty it may well be that the Coens’ deft touch has deserted them.

The story is a slight one in which self-obsessed divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney) finds himself attracted to gold-digging wife Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) when she drops by to begin divorce proceedings against her cheating spouse (Edward Herrmann, very funny). Massey’s reputation stands on his ironclad pre-nuptial agreement – a piece of paper so strong no other lawyer has ever cracked it.

Marylin loses her case, but then hires Miles to represent her when she presents husband number two, gushing oil billionaire Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton in a cameo). Miles does the deed, but his heart is turning to mush by the sight of the delectable Marylin. So when the marriage to Howard fails, Miles is there to offer his own brand of support.

Intolerable Cruelty is, in essence, a love affair between two sh*theels. It also aspires to be an intricately constructed tale of one-upmanship and revenge but, of course, the story is so anorexic that any surprises are rapidly let out of the bag.

Whatever enjoyment there is in this misfire basically comes down to Clooney’s tics – in O Brother, Where Art Thou? it was his hair; here it’s his teeth – Massey’s discomfort at confronting the living dead figure of his boss in the bowels of the office, a magazine titled Living without Intestines and the blackly comic, laugh-out-loud death of an asthmatic hitman.

But the laughs are rationed to the extent that the film almost grinds to a halt. What keeps it moving is Clooney’s lightness of touch and the astonishingly beautiful figure of Zeta-Jones, who the camera (and the Coens) obviously worships.

In the canon of Coen creations Intolerable Cruelty is decidedly second league stuff. Undoubtedly mainstream but somehow lacking the magic touch that the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges would have brought to it, it stands as the Coens’ biggest experiment yet but also their most obvious failure.

Star rating: ***

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