BY AMANDA GREGORY
Watching Intolerable Cruelty is only slightly worse than sitting through a particularly bad date. You go into both with high hopes that are usually based on the on-paper qualifications of those involved. Before either is half over, however, you’re counting the seconds till it’s over. You’re awkward and uncomfortable, wondering if the experience is really as miserable as you think it is, or if you’re just too dense to appreciate something that may be truly wonderful, based on the aforementioned qualifications. Finally, both bad dates and movies as bad as Intolerable Cruelty fail due to a complete absence of chemistry.
In Intolerable Cruelty, Catherine Zeta-Jones is cast as Marilyn Rexroth, a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara who seeks to make her way in the world by marrying, then divorcing, the richest available man. George Clooney plays Miles Massey, an always-in-control divorce attorney who specializes in thwarting gold-diggers like Marilyn. Roughly eight hours into the movie, when the two leads finally cross paths, the audience is anxiously anticipating the explosion. What should be a highly combustible pairing, however, never ends up igniting.
It’s difficult to comprehend how two people as impossibly good-looking as Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney can lack chemistry. On his worst day, Clooney could seduce a lead pipe. In the past, Zeta-Jones has made it appear that she was genuinely attracted to men as hideous as Michael Douglas. And that’s not just her day job. Unfortunately, both leads merely phone in their performances whenever they appear onscreen together. Clooney exhibits more chemistry with Paul Adelstein, who plays his eager law associate, than he ever does with Zeta-Jones. And without the requisite snap, crackle and pop between Clooney and Zeta-Jones, the movie is simply painful to watch.
Two people are undeniably to blame for the failed romantic pairing of Massey and Rexroth. What’s surprising is that the two people are not the two leads. As painful as it may be for lovers of The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo to admit, most of the guilt belongs to Ethan and Joel Coen, who wrote, directed and produced this clunker. The writing is lackluster and repetitive, never hitting the level of 1950s screwball comedy for which the film seems to be aiming. The dialogue never meets even the low standard of witty repartee for real life, let alone the rapid-fire, multiple-entendre give-and-take that the movie desperately needs to succeed. The directing offers damning proof that this is the first time that the Coen brothers have attempted romantic comedy, with dismal results. All evidence points to the fact that the only guidance Clooney received from the Coens was something along the lines of, “Remember that other movie you did with us, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Stick with that character and those exaggerated facial expressions and never appear to notice that you’re bantering with the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Intolerable Cruelty is not completely devoid of entertaining moments. The pre-credit sequence where one of Clooney’s victims discovers that his wife is cheating on him is mildly amusing, even if it’s one of the many plot threads that make the film feel like it is treading water. And, well, that’s about it for entertaining moments. There are also a few lines and themes that law students will chuckle at, though they’re unlikely to hold any attraction for the general public. Ultimately, however, anyone tempted to see this movie out of admiration for the Coen brothers or the two stars should stay away, at the risk of sullying his or her opinion of these otherwise talented artists.