Not up to Par

The Coen Brothers create a good enough film, but it's a letdown for true fans.

As far as I'm concerned, the Coen Brothers have done no wrong in their nearly 20-year career. Their latest, the screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty, is arguably the weakest of the 10 films they have made together.

It lacks the cohesiveness and sense of originality that has pervaded each of their films (even the poorly received Hudsucker Proxy, a film I liked). That said, and with all its faults considered, the final result is still a pretty good film, if not the groundbreaking piece of work that has come to be expected from the brothers.

I understand this isn't the highest of praise for the filmmaking team responsible for three of my very favorite movies (Fargo, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink) and that, perhaps, my expectations run a little too high for these guys. To say that their latest, a divorce comedy that feels a little old (the script has been kicking around for nearly a decade), is a bit of a letdown actually causes pain in my abdomen.

Luckily, a bit of a letdown from the Coens doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad film. It's just something far away from the near filmmaking perfection they've achieved in the past. With the remarkably photogenic George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leads, and humungous Universal Studios footing the bill, this venture is obviously a Coen attempt at a mainstream hit, something they most certainly deserve. It's just a little alien to those cinema geeks out there who worship these guys as movie gods. (This is a church in which I'm a card-carrying pastor.)

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a legendary divorce lawyer who has authored a pre-nuptial agreement so impenetrable that an esteemed law school offers a course that tries to figure it out. When he takes the case of philandering millionaire husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), he finds a way to prevent his beautiful wife Marylin (Zeta-Jones) from collecting any assets. This sets Marylin on a plot for revenge, complicated by the fact that Miles and Marylin have eyes for each other.

Clooney, in his second pairing with the Coens after his award-winning work in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is effortlessly funny in a role that exhibits both megacharm and welcomed goofiness. He does his best work when teamed with the Coens, and this film hopefully won't be their last joint venture. Zeta-Jones, fresh off her Oscar-winning performance in Chicago, makes for a fantastic femme fatale. Her Marylin, a ruthless but likeable creation, provides the Coens with one of their more interesting female characters since Frances McDormand's Marge in Fargo.

There are a few "Coen" moments sprinkled throughout the film, including a funny sequence involving a large hitman named Wheezy Joe and his unfortunate mishap with an inhaler. I also liked Miles Massey's creepy boss, an old gentleman in the basement hooked up to life support machines who Miles is scared to visit.

Regrettably, much of the film's humor is dated and uninteresting. Jokes involving women cheating their husbands out of their fortunes are not new and are generally unfunny by nature. The greed of lawyers is another well-worn category, and while the Coens bring some original giggles to both subjects, there are many dry spells.

The film looks great, but it lacks a major sense of purpose. This won't keep many from getting a few laughs out of it, but it will have some Coen fans dismissing it and looking forward to 2004's remake of The Ladykillers starring Tom Hanks. A film that is simply OK from the Coens' represents a strange sort of failure, and Intolerable Cruelty falls into that category.

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