“You fffffffffascinate me,” says George Clooney during a key romantic moment in Intolerable Cruelty, opposite the svelte and seductive Catharine Zeta-Jones. This surprisingly lightweight production from the Coen Brothers benefits from the chemistry of its leads: Clooney is suavely vainglorious as divorce attorney Miles Massey, and Zeta-Jones makes for an appealingly refined foil. As a manipulative, deceitful, no-good serial gold digger Zeta-Jones brings class and sexiness to this stock order bad girl. Clooney draws a certain zest out of the actress that hasn’t been evident in her prior screen incarnations, perhaps because he’s so willing to be the target of the film’s slapstick gags, and his rat-a-tat repartee is charming (his legal jargon makes for sly, boyish come-ons).
Clooney and Zeta-Jones bring to mind the great movie couples—their sting and bite is inextricably bound with their puppy dog eyes and declarations of love. (Clooney’s second-act closer, a monologue about how he’s a changed man because of the power of romance, renouncing his corporate breastplate in the name of rediscovered idealism, is a standout and features a killer punchline.) Unfortunately, the Coen Brothers don’t give this match-made-in-heaven-and-hell a movie to sustain their charms. For once, we’re hoping they’ll bubble over into their usual excess, but Intolerable Cruelty plays its cards close to the vest—and with mixed results. As screwball comedy, the film is entirely too restrained, coasting for too long on recycled gags (too many collagen jokes for the gaggle of female characters).
Following a series of divorces and marriages where Clooney and Zeta-Jones’s characters are forever placed on opposite ends of the bargaining table, Intolerable Cruelty ultimately doesn’t spend enough time in the courtroom and in the boudoir. A slew of colorful supporting characters lack that over-the-top charm heir to previous Coen characters: Edward Hermann’s philandering hubbie with a train fetish, Geoffrey Rush’s irrelevant show biz TV producer, and Cedric the Entertainer’s slippery private eye are amusing representations of a party-time Los Angeles gone to seed, but they never leap off the screen with that splash of color we’ve come to expect from the director brothers.