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(2003) (George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A veteran divorce attorney inexplicably finds himself falling for a habitual gold digger who may or may not have her sights set on him.
Miles Massey (GEORGE CLOONEY) is probably the best divorce attorney in town. Renowned for his bulletproof pre-nup, he can put a spin on almost any case and end up ruining the lives of innocent people, such as soap opera producer Donovan Donaly (GEOFFREY RUSH) whose wife was cheating on him. With the aid of his associate, Wrigley (PAUL ADELSTEIN), Miles is nearly unbeatable.

That is, until he sets eyes on the ravishing Marylin Rexroth (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES). She recently hired private eye Gus Petch (CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER) to catch her real estate developer husband Rex (EDWARD HERRMANN) in the middle of an affair. With the aid of her lawyer, Freddy Bender (RICHARD JENKINS), and support from her divorced best friend, Sarah Sorkin (JULIA DUFFY), she hopes to get half of Rex's total worth.

Miles won't have any of that, and goes to some underhanded measures to introduce a surprise client, Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (JONATHAN HADARY), into the divorce proceedings. When that's done, Miles, who's growing nervous about turning into an elderly workaholic like his boss, decides to pursue her.

Yet, she's already found a new suitor in the form of oilman Howard D. Doyle (BILLY BOB THORNTON). With Miles progressively losing control and falling head over heels for Marylin, it's only a matter of time before more weddings, divorces and even a hitman, Wheezy Joe (IRWIN KEYES), further complicate matters.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The statistics state that something like one out of every two marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The half that stays together obviously has one or more reasons for not populating the land with more divorce lawyers. Yet, and despite the trials and tribulations of the dating world, I'd bet that if you ask some of them, a fair amount would say they miss the "hunt," flirting and other exciting elements of courting.

The same holds true with fictional characters. It's usually a great deal more fun - particularly in comedies - watching two people do that dating dance than seeing them finally get together. One need only think of the likes of Sam and Diane in "Cheers" or David and Maddie in "Moonlighting" for proof positive of that.

When they were in flirtation mode, the sparks, witty banter and pheromones raged. Once they entered into and/or consummated a dating relationship, however, most of that subsided and the viewing pleasure of watching the romantic tension grow all but vanished.

The same holds true for Miles and Marylin in the somewhat dark romantic comedy "Intolerable Cruelty." The first half or so of the film is near comedic brilliance as George Clooney's confident, slightly bored and charming divorce lawyer tries to figure out Catherine Zeta-Jones' manipulative, ravishing and seductive gold digger.

Fans of romantic tension and comedy styling of old - where the witty banter and flirtatious remarks ruled - will be in hog heaven. Various scenes and the exchanges in them - romantically based or not -- are so brilliantly staged, executed and played that they stand up rather well to some of the best that film has ever offered.

Once the two main characters finally come together, though, and things turn a bit more cheery, the banter, charm and a great deal of fun evaporates faster than amorous perspiration on a dry, desert day. Since the film comes from the brotherly filmmaking duo of Joel and Ethan Coen (of "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona" fame), however, things aren't necessarily one-hundred percent hunky-dory from that point to the end.

That said, fans of the filmmakers and their decidedly dark sense of humor and view of the world might be wishing the film had more of that quality, particularly considering the let-down of the second half.

Collaborating on the script with screenwriters Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone ("Big Trouble," "Life"), the Coens deliver a mixed bag of a film. Notwithstanding, but probably directly connected to the disappointment of seeing the two flirters get together, the quality and quantity of comedy material precipitously drops off as the film rounds the midway point.

Until then, the film is terrific, enjoyable and wildly entertaining with Clooney ("Solaris," "Ocean's Eleven"), Zeta-Jones ("Chicago," "America's Sweethearts") and the rest of the cast hitting their dialogue, reactions and comedic timing in full, perfect stride. The second half, while not intolerable, clearly pales in comparison to everything that precedes it.

Given the setup and nature of the piece, one automatically assumes some sort of twists and turns will be arriving sometime after the substantial plot turn. Unfortunately, they're not particularly clever or imaginative, especially in relation to the earlier material. It's not enough to make you want to divorce yourself from the proceedings, but it clearly diminishes the entertainment value of the overall effort.

Part of that has to do with Clooney's character going all wishy-washy in the second half. While I understand and appreciate the concept of character change, growth and/or comeuppance, his character's sudden change in demeanor and mindset feels too contrived and ultimately taints what's initially a brilliantly written and played part. Zeta-Jones is good as the seductive gold digger and aside from a few of those "surprises," pretty much stays the course.

The likes of Edward Herrmann ("The Emperor's Club," "The Lost Boys"), Richard Jenkins ("The Core," "Changing Lanes") and Paul Adelstein ("Bedazzled," "The Grifters") are terrific in their supporting roles, while Jonathan Hadary ("Bait," "Private Parts") single-handedly steals the one scene in which he appears as a flamboyant concierge.

Geoffrey Rush ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Banger Sisters"), Cedric the Entertainer ("Barbershop," "Serving Sara") and Billy Bob Thornton ("Levity," "Monster's Ball"), on the other hand, aren't asked to do much (or possibly had their more significant parts left on the cutting room floor).

While the material and developments of the second half would probably be fine in another movie, the fact that they pale in comparison to the first is a large, but not devastating letdown. The earlier, throwback-style material, however, is well worth the price of admission alone. "Intolerable Cruelty" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 7, 2003 / Posted October 10, 2003

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