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Charismatic Clooney excels in latest role

Jack Watkins | Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The most amazing thing about Intolerable Cruelty is not how good it is, but how bad it could have been. The film was originally set to star Hugh Grant and Téa Leoni, and Joe Dante was originally slated to direct it. Then Jeremy Irons and Heather Locklear were tabbed. Ron Howard was briefly in talks to direct.

After going through various other permutations – involving Julia Roberts and Geoffrey Wright, among others – the final product somehow emerged as a Coen Brothers movie starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are of course the duo responsible for some of the best films of the last decade, including Fargo and The Big Lebowski, while Clooney and Zeta-Jones hold similar preeminence among modern sex symbols.

Despite the impressive assembly of talent in this film, the show belongs to Clooney, who has seized the opportunity to complete his makeover as a modern-day Cary Grant. Clooney’s Miles Massey is exactly the sort of character Grant played in his comedies – handsome, charismatic, highly energetic and prone to exaggerated facial expressions and physical humor.

Massey is a divorce attorney who becomes engaged in a complex duel with Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), a beautiful and ruthless gold digger. Of course, the inevitable hilarity ensues, and the inevitable sparks fly.

The Coen Brothers did not exactly write the script – they got on board the project and rewrote it to their tastes. It is likely that the basic plot of a romance between the rivals played by Clooney and Zeta-Jones was in the original script, but I find it impossible to believe that the farcical supporting characters are anything but Coen inventions.

Included here are a man with a strange obsession with trains, a strange concierge named Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy, a senior law partner who seems to have no functioning vital organs, and an asthmatic assassin named Wheezy Joe. Such characters allow Clooney to play the straight man in some scenes, while being the cut-up with Zeta-Jones.

The Coen Brothers, always students of film history, have also filled this movie with various homages to past works. Most obvious, probably, is the continued parallelism between Clooney and Grant. Far more surprising were two sequences near the beginning of the film, which closely resembled scenes from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Lynch and Joel Coen tied for the Best Director award at Cannes in 2001 for Muholland Drive and The Man Who Wasn’t There, respectively, so it is likely that Coen wanted to tip his hat at Lynch.

Ultimately, the movie excels because of its star’s performance – seeing a man get bitten by a poodle is not funny, but seeing George Clooney bitten by a poodle is hilarious, because he makes it funny.

Contact Jack Watkins at jwatkin1@nd.edu