Intolerable Cruelty is a slick romantic comedy with big name stars and the Coen Brothers at the helm. Ostensibly a satirical dig at divorce happy society this screwball comedy lacks the usual Coen Brothers edge in favour of a more mainstream approach. While the film is funny in places it is also sentimental and thoroughly predictable.
George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a top divorce attorney who is suffering from a general ennui, success has come easily for him and he is desperately seeking some kind of a challenge. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones as the scheming gold digger Marilyn Rexroth. She is seeking a divorce from her filthy rich cheating husband Rex, played by Edward Herrman. The two clash over the divorce settlement and the film plays on their love/hate relationship as they stop at nothing to gain an advantage.
Deceit and underhand tactics conflict with their obvious mutual attraction as Clooney and Zeta-Jones engage in what is billed as a classic battle of the sexes. The situation is complicated by the appearance of another potential husband for Marilyn in the shape of thick Texas oil baron Howard D. Doyle, played by Billy Bob Thornton and the meddling inclusion of outspoken private investigator Gus Petch, played by Cedric the Entertainer.
The comedy here is gentle and the sentimentality doesn´t really fit with the cynicism of the characters. The moments of black comedy such as the promising opening sequence which sees Donovan Donally, played by Geoffrey Rush, catching his wife in bed with another man tend to descend into farcical slapstick a bit too quickly. There are some good laughs in the film, but they´re disappointingly rare.
The script is very slick as you may expect and the action conforms to the hour and a half standard. Most of the scenes centre on Clooney and Zeta-Jones sparking off each other as they engage in flirtatious verbal sparring struggling to be dominant. The rest of the cast are very good, Thornton plays his part perfectly and Geoffrey Rush really stood out with a great performance as the comically downtrodden Donovan Donally.
The direction is also very good and there are moments where the Coen´s style comes across through the quirky characterisations such as with Clooney´s constant preening and picking at his teeth or the terrifying scenes with the hideously scary boss of the law firm. For the most part though this is standard mainstream stuff and you can easily sit back and look at the pretty people in this highly polished production without engaging your brain.
The Coen Brothers mark their mainstream status very clearly with this film. The quirkiness is toned down, the surreal is completely gone and with the mile a minute slickness of the dialogue performed by beautiful a-list stars the charm of the characters is somewhat reduced. Intolerable Cruelty is far less engaging than their earlier work, lacking a creative spark or fresh angle what you get is an easily marketed genre movie. Sure there are some laughs, the acting is very good, so is the direction and this is easily better than the majority of Hollywood romantic comedies but the lasting impression is of lightweight, forgettable entertainment and that´s not what we´ve come to expect from the Coens.