I'm not a big fan of the Coen brothers, but I do maintain a certain respect for their cerebral, ironic wit and their fine craftsmanship. Very little of either, unfortunately, can be found in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, an embarrassingly heavy-handed comedy. The film takes a very tired subject--the duplicity of divorce law--and makes it seem even more tired than you thought.George Clooney plays a divorce lawyer who finds himself drawn to one of his clients, Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an icy but charming black widow on a continual search for a rich husband. Clooney's a bit of a stiff in this film; he has little to do but flash his pearly-whites at the camera. But Zeta-Jones is one of the few bright spots; she's convincingly two-faced, both pleasantly elegant and forbiddingly distant--you know she's bad news but you can't keep your eyes off her. (Considering her coolly indifferent visage, I have a feeling she'd be in major trouble if she ever wound up doing slasher films. "There's a fellow in the woods with a chainsaw? You don't say...")
But the material simply isn't there. The Coens fill the screen with boring, unfunny caricatures. Many of the secondary roles are quickly defined by their "amusing" quirks (e.g., the hitman with asthma, the trial witness who brings a poodle to the stand) and seldom come off as more than tinnily one-dimensional. Quite a few scenes fail badly--the Coens can't always tell the difference between weird and funny--and in too many places they seemingly try to compensate for the script's general lack of humor with absurdly melodramatic music; it functions here as the laugh-track on a sitcom, cueing the audience to laugh, and the effect is just as silly.
Structurally, the film is uncomfortably chaotic. The problems begin with the opening scene, which is nearly extraneous. (The scene also fails on its own terms; like much of the film, it's not really funny, just shrill and obvious.) It takes an uncomfortably long time before it becomes clear who the principals are supposed to be.
Aside the Zeta-Jones' charms, the only elements that save INTOLERABLE from total disaster are some clever plot turns toward the end, when the film starts looking like a reasonably accomplished takeoff on DANGEROUS LIAISONS, and a refreshingly cynical view of the marriage ritual. But the movie tells you practically nothing you haven't heard many times before. When Clooney goes into his sleazy-lawyer act, it's a bit like hearing jokes about Nixon--it's just old.Not altogether worthless, but I have to wonder if the title really refers to the characters' actions--or the experience of watching them.