Just Tolerable 

Hinting at past glories and future promise, the Coen brothers miss a beat.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a fabulously successful divorce attorney and inventor of the Massey prenup, which, as several characters note with awe, “has never been penetrated.” Obsessed with maintaining the radiance of his teeth, which he scrutinizes whenever a reflecting surface presents itself, Miles is not really a whole human being. He is a voracious maw attached to a gleaming apparatus for attracting and securing prey. When he sums up his philosophy he refuses to disguise his ambition with the trappings of selflessness: “Struggle, and challenge, and ultimate destruction of your opponent — that’s life!”

For Miles, however, struggle is in short supply. Whenever he stretches out his hand, victories tumble into it like fruit falling ripe from the tree. He is, therefore, delighted when his practice brings him face to face with an opponent, voluptuously played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who matches his ruthless intelligence with a calculated, hypnotic allure that might make a cobra envious. Zeta-Jones’ Marilyn Rexroth, a predator down to her fingertips, is an impressively single-minded gold digger. Bent on landing a rich husband and relieving him of his millions, she is a divorce attorney’s worst nightmare. Naturally Miles cannot resist her.

As has been the case before, the Coen brothers’ intent is to appropriate a genre from Hollywood’s Golden Age and then, in obedience to their skewed sensibility, transform it into something so strange that it becomes an object of wonder. “Intolerable Cruelty” wants to do to the screwball comedy what “Miller’s Crossing” did to gangster movies and “Fargo” did to the caper flick, but the magic that the Coens have invoked before emerges too infrequently here for the trick to be pulled off completely.

Happily, in some sequences the Coen brothers unleash their demons and allow the proceedings on-screen to go haywire, without relinquishing the deft control that keeps the madness from becoming merely a mess. When we see a poodle-bearing baron flounce toward the witness stand to dish some dirt, or a magazine whose cover portrays smiling, vigorous people who are, as the title cheerily announces, “Living without Intestines,” we don’t need to ask where we are. We are in the Coen Zone.

For the most part, however, “Intolerable Cruelty” settles into a straightforward and sometimes even flatfooted mode that keeps us from caring very intensely about the vacillating fortunes of Miles and Marilyn. For this shortcoming, the script carries most of the blame, although it is possible that “A Beautiful Mind” producer Brian Grazer, more in his element when he teams up with Ron Howard, may have worked to make the film less edgy than it might have been. The Coens collaborated with three other screenwriters, and what results is more or less what one expects from a talented committee: a competent bit of work from which striking originality and idiosyncrasy have mostly been pruned away. Even when the Coen brothers have not risen to the heights of “Raising Arizona” or “Barton Fink,” freshness has been the hallmark of their work. But when we watch Clooney stun his jaded colleagues by testifying to his newfound love, we are surprised to feel that we’ve heard all this before, perhaps on Lifetime or a re-run of “Ally McBeal.”

“Intolerable Cruelty” is peppered with exuberant cameos that offer a good measure of compensation. As Zeta-Jones’s first victim, Edward Herrmann energetically romps through his role as a high-stakes real estate operator with a choo-choo fetish (he hires a whole troupe of tarts to don conductor’s gear and prance about). Billy Bob Thornton also does a star turn as an oil tycoon with a heart as big as his bank balance. He, too, of course, stumbles into Zeta-Jones’s cross hairs.

When the credits roll, however, what most sticks in the mind is the promise of Clooney’s performance. When everything in the movie clicks, the Coens have conjured up the incarnation of an era that seemed irretrievably lost. If the film is not a complete success, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what may be to come. * * * S

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