Like a bride who marries a man with bad habits thinking she'll be able to change him, in "Intolerable Cruelty," the eccentric writing-directing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have married themselves to someone else's original script and the union hasn't turned out as happy as they'd hoped.
Aspiring to the snappy banter and chemistry of a Howard Hawks comedy, the unconventional brains behind "Raising Arizona," "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" cast George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as L.A.'s slickest divorce lawyer and the indomitably alluring serial gold-digger who ironically sets his heart aquiver.
The brothers rewrote the screenplay with distinctively Coen quirks, like Clooney's menacing, 87-year-old prune of a senior partner, who spends his fish-eye-lensed scenes attached to a life-support machine in a forebodingly dark, wood-paneled office. But between the picture's high-gloss big-studio sheen (something the brothers aren't accustom to) and its sometimes pedestrian high-camp conventions, "Intolerable Cruelty" seems to have lost both the underlying savvy that gives Coen Brothers comedies their soul and the evenly matched gender rivalries that gave Hawks' romances their heart.
Clooney begins his role of uber-attorney Miles Massey playing the guy as a wily scoundrel who can dig up any dirt, who can turn any accusation around on the accuser and who has created the infamous, ironclad "Massey pre-nup" for rich clients who want to protect their assets going into a marriage. Yet when he meets slinky, sly, man-eater Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) across the bargaining table while representing her philandering moneybags husband (Edward Herrmann) -- well, her first one, anyway -- Massey is soon so dumbstruck that when the film should be serving up witty, wicked verbal sparring, Marylin is instead playing him like a cheap fiddle -- while supposedly still falling in love. Massey seems to know what he's up against, but he never really rises to the occasion. So when, inevitably, the other shoe drops, matrimonially speaking, it does so with a disappointing thud.
This isn't to say that "Intolerable Cruelty" isn't fairly well saturated with good humor. Joel and Ethan Coen can squeeze a laugh out of something as silly as Clooney playing up his character's compulsively toothy smile. But even though the brothers rewrote the source material (by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, "Big Trouble" and "Life") and made it their own, the character development and story arc remain disappointingly uneven.
While Clooney is certainly a charming screen presence and has a talent for comedy, his Miles Massey is too screwball to be credible as a courtroom shark, yet too self-possessed to be credible as a fool for love, which makes the transition between the two extremes even harder to believe than the extremes themselves. And the fact that this character, and by extension the whole movie, isn't all that sharp makes it harder to shrug off some narrative liberties, like the pivotal symbolic notion that just the act of tearing up a prenuptial agreement makes it legally void -- or that Massey, who uses a loud-mouthed gumshoe (Cedric The Entertainer) to investigate all his legal opponents, wouldn't have gone digging for secrets about a romantic rival, a talkative Texas oil billionaire and major rube (Billy Bob Thornton) whom Marylin plans to fleece.
Zeta-Jones is deliciously desirable in her romantic deviousness, but Marylin's growing genuine feelings for Miles Massey feel like a footnote in the script, which ultimately leaves the actress without enough character to chew on and the stars without much more than surface chemistry between them.
Had Clooney and Zeta-Jones been blessed with more lively, head-butting, memorably quotable give-and-take, "Intolerable Cruelty" could have been a sublime romantic dark comedy. The movie certainly has its moments of inspired mirth -- "I could have you disbarred for that," coos Marylin after Massey makes a pass at her. "It was worth it," he replies with a Cheshire grin. But those moments are the exception rather than the rule.