The Coen Brothers are known for their brand of idiosyncratic dramas and dark comedies. Their 1996 effort, "Fargo," has become the very definition of this writer/director team's quirky sensibilities. That film rightly brought the gifted brothers critic accolades and industry recognition. Seven years and three competent films later ("The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and "The Man Who Wasn't There") the offbeat duo produce what is supposedly their most accessible and commercial feature, "Intolerable Cruelty." It is a comedy that takes both advantage and solace in its charismatic leading actors – George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones – to sacrifice plot for cheap laughs.
The story outline would seem sound on paper but it plays out with little inspiration. Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a divorce lawyer who hasn't lost a case. He is also rich and very bored. In walks Marylin Rexroth, a beautiful temptress and expert marriage manipulator, who brings much challenge and flavour into Massey's otherwise monotonous life. Thus begins the battle of the sexes where it is love vs. money and everything else in between. Alas, there is no obvious symmetry to the story and we soon find ourselves helpless companions on a journey of hostilities and affection; one that brings intermittent amusement, yes, but no measurable emotional payoff. Simply put, the plot serves the characters and not the other way round.
A clear highlight in the "Intolerable Cruelty" is George Clooney's portrayal of the wide-eyed Miles Massey, a performance that is equal parts drama and physical comedy. Clooney continues his winning streak of playing unconventional but memorable characters and this role is more power to his commitment to excellence. But if Clooney is the ying to the film's only major success then Catherine Zeta-Jones as the sexy Marylin Rexroth is the yang. Sparks fly whenever these two are on screen and it is their presence that holds our attention. The chemistry between them is obvious but is seldom used to forward the story. Instead we are treated to an interplay of post-modern ideologies on marriage and divorce. Acceptable on its own merits, this technique does not hold water within the dramatic misgivings of the wafer-thin story.
Packaged as a modern screwball comedy, I found "Intolerable Cruelty" to be a huge misfire – it is a product of misplaced confidence and, in this particular case, unnecessary eccentricity. I do wonder how the film would have played out had the Coens approached it as a strict romance about two attractive deceivers caught in an esoteric game they both want to win. - Adnan Khan