'Intolerable Cruelty' film poster. A slick Beverly Hills divorce lawyer (Clooney) frames the wife (Zeta-Jones) of a client to get him released from the marriage without a settlement...

Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney in Universal's 'Intolerable Cruelty' from last year

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Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush
Duration: 100 mins

You don't need to know how it begins. Nor that it has some clever ideas masquerading as simple lover-fare. All that you need know is that women are the new dominant species.

Not quite news? It may be that the directors weren't especially flattering towards the Beverly-Hills female clique (swimming pools, facelifts, and pre-nuptual agreements) but Catherine Zeta-Jones is out to show that when the going gets tough, the men have already left.

The idea of Love and/or Money is not particular to America, and so isn't too hard to export. The setting around Los Angeles, and leather-chaired flights to Las Vegas should merely sweeten the moral pill. Except, even with plenty of Philadelphia Story kicking about, there really isn't one: according to the director, Joel Coen, Intolerable Cruelty occupies the privileged stature of being both pro-marriage, and in a peculiar sort of CNN-impartiality, pro-divorce.

George Clooney portrays the terminally successful attorney Miles Massey, who, while smooth as a barrister's briefcase, ends up in a distorted tale of games, passion and serial betrayal after falling for professional divorcee Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones).

However this needn't have been Mrs Michael Douglas - this could have been Katharine Hepburn playing against an excruciatingly suave Cary Grant. Clooney's even dressed in Roger Thornhill grey. That said, he always excels at playing George Clooney, and so Massey comes across the pinnacle of cheeky sophistication. Yet even matching Hepburn's pout with Gaelic pert Zeta-Jones can be alienating on screen, appearing visually captivating but unamiable. The vital chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones is hardly helping by being wholly absent, and despite the sharp script and well-crafted camerawork the film fails to satisfy on any emotional wavelength. Though it's not for want of trying.

It's suggestible that Zeta-Jones plays the part just so the audience should neither sympathise with her character yet nor are they to scorn her; actually she has a hard enough time deciding which accent to use, whilst her brand of Wenglish kicks not arse but ass and the persona she's created for herself - the sultry brunette - is at odds with her original and more genuine personality which was, and has always seemed to be, Marietta Larkin. All these undermine her concerted efforts to allure, but, consistently gasping at each seductive gesture, Clooney at least does his best to look interested.

What makes this picture rise above the celluloid standard is that the Coen brothers were even blasé about the stereotyped love affair schmaltz they wouldn't have strung out sporadic segments of plot, taken them beyond any point of reason and by focusing on the inexorably dull moments bring previously cheesy clichés into a surreal reality.

The downside is that, on occasion, the film struggles to be more than a succession of set-pieces, with Grant - sorry, Clooney compressing different roles into one and then struggling to decide which to stick with. With his descent into love-afflicted parody, Miles Massey is sometimes humourous, generally convincing and always watchable - but he's alone there, unless you include Billy Bob Thornton (Primary Colours, Pushing Tin, here Marylin's husband-to-be) or an exquisitely seedy Geoffrey Rush, who's appearance lifts what is in essence an often-wilting comedy above its drying roots.

About two-thirds into the action the film lurches into a faster pace, with slapstick dominating the Coen brothers' love for the bizarre and the scenes accelerated to harness the audience's attention for the surprise finale. But in their intention to diverge away from the bleakness of Fargo or the quirky morality of O Brother, Where art Thou? the Coens have provided a film that rivals Titanic for unpredictable endings. Any interest lies in how it got there, and the script doesn't once attempt subtlety to keep you guessing.

Intolerable Cruelty is hard not to enjoy, yet rather difficult to like. There are arguably far worse ways to part with an evening but, once you've left, you'll notice that the entire plot was about whether Clooney and Zeta-Jones end up rich and/or happy, and, unless you were both before the film started, you might find it hard to care.

Just perhaps then, after all, the beginning was important. But how does it end? One clue: MADE IN HOLLYWOOD.

Review by Daniel Masmanian

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DVD Extras: A Look Inside Intolerable Cruelty. The Wardrobe. The Outtakes.

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