Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a cynic when it comes to marriage and well he should be. As the nation's leading divorce attorney he's pretty much seen the institution in the worst possible light. He's even created the definitive prenuptial agreement "the Massey Prenup " and it's so ironclad there's a course devoted to it at Harvard. He's also known in legal circles for his ability to convince juries to give his clients often the guilty parties in breakups the lion's share of the settlement despite their obvious and documented marital misdeeds. But when he pulls his tricks on Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and takes away her chance at financial independence the lovely lady vows revenge--and what better way to get it than to use her vast powers of play-acting and manipulation to turn the hard-bitten lawyer into a mushy love-soaked mess? Trouble is Cupid's arrow flies both ways--for better or worse.
Strong lead characters are the heart of Intolerable Cruelty and Clooney and Zeta-Jones are up to the task seeming to recognize how easy it could be to slip into romantic comedy stereotypes. Zeta-Jones avoids that pitfall by keeping her gestures and facial expression very small--she never overplays her character's role-playing whether she's doing the slighted wife bit the rich divorcée bit or the lovestruck financée bit. Through it all she's bathed in a soft golden light and she looks warm and beautiful and kind even when she's being intolerably cruel. Clooney on the other hand is shot with a whiter light--probably to show off his character's gleaming teeth which are as much the key to his personality as the hair was to Clooney's Everett Ulysses McGill in O Brother Where Art Thou? also by the Coen brothers--director Joel and producer Ethan. As in that film Clooney here goes big with everything--his face is expressive and volatile his voice is loud and his words come fast and hard. The opposing ways the two actors play their characters really works for the movie leading to some good comic moments and some decent on-screen chemistry. Notable supporting performances come from Geoffrey Rush as an early Massey victim and Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye playing both sides.
The Coen brothers have once again turned a stagnating genre on its ear as is their modus operandi in most of their films. As is also usual for the pair Intolerable Cruelty hearkens back to the good old days of filmmaking when strong character motivations drove intricate plots and even light romantic comedies could teach audiences something about human nature without getting preachy. That said there's still something missing from this movie. It may be that the story's modern Beverly Hills setting called for longtime Coen brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins to take a modern glossy L.A. approach to the look of the film which gives it a celluloid visual feel audiences see all the time instead of one of the fresh different looks we've come to expect from the makers of O Brother and The Man Who Wasn't There. But Cruelty doesn't play out like a sellout even if it kind of looks like one. And maybe that's the point--movies like people aren't always what they seem to be on the surface.