The Big Divorceski

It’s beginning to look as though the films of George Clooney are really the products of documentary crews following the actor as he leads his enviable life. In film after film, he’s seen dining with beautiful actresses in seductive surroundings: Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven and, now, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty. He’s the consummate flirt, a thicker, more jocklike Cary Grant, and women can’t resist the sly grin perched above the square jaw: Say, didn’t you used to be Batman?

In Intolerable Cruelty — directed by Joel Coen (who shares screenplay credit with his brother, Ethan, and Big Trouble‘s Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone), Clooney’s smile is a Clorox kind of blinding. When we first see him, as divorce lawyer Miles Massey, Clooney is having his teeth whitened but still conducting a phone conversation with his assistant, who doesn’t need to understand her boss to know what he’s saying. Miles sounds like Howard Hawks’ version of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday and I Was a Male War Bride (both written by Charles Lederer, who also penned the original Ocean’s 11). Clooney lacks only the vaguely masked accent, Iowa by way of Bristol.

Miles is smug, bored and vain — in short, the perfect divorce lawyer. He has faith only in the inevitable destruction of love, and he knows the judicial process is a fraud. But he’s born again when Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), wife of one of his unfaithful clients, saunters into his office. That she loathes him for humiliating her in court only makes him want her more. If, as one character says, “getting laid is like a game of Russian roulette,” Miles sees in Marilyn someone worth spinning the cylinder for.

The Coen brothers used to handle betrayals and indiscretions with a little murder and blackmail, but the film-noir fetish on display in Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There has given way to screwball shenanigans — broad yuks, over-the-top performances, alliterative names. Intolerable Cruelty is populated by cretins and buffoons, slimy lechers and gotcha private dicks; their archetypes are from black-and-white comedies of the ’40s and con jobs of the ’50s. Only Zeta-Jones’ Marilyn could exist in the real world; hers is the vibe of someone not to be fucked with.

The first half of Intolerable Cruelty is a dopey kick, full of silly jokes tossed off so quickly that you’re reminded less of bantering Grant and Rosalind Russell than of Groucho and Chico Marx, and the Coens bring out the goofy best in Clooney. The movie bogs down toward the end — too many twists, as screwball turns screw-over — and it’s bound to be dismissed as trivial even by the Coen faithful. But that’s what they said about The Big Lebowski before it turned into a masterpiece.

Categories: Movies