Much like their previous effort, 2001's neo-noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," the latest Coen Brothers film "Intolerable Cruelty" works much better as a recreation of the genre that it's parrotting than it does as an actual film. Just as "Man Who Wasn't There" was a beautifully photographed noir piece that peeled back to reveal a substandard movie inside, "Intolerable Cruelty" perfectly apes all of the conventions of that genre and works on that level- but is at the same time not particularly funny or enjoyable.
Perhaps what's most disappointing about 'Cruelty' is that while it has some funny moments, it can't begin to hold up the standard of Coens' previous comedic work, most notably the Hilarious Holy Trinity of "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," and "O Brother Where Art Thou." Those films all featured both vritually non-stop laughs and lots of memorable moments; 'Cruelty' can't live up to the standard, contributing next to no top-notch comedy material, aside from a singular bit involving a hitman and his inhaler.
In the Coens' first-ever full-fledged romantic comedy, George Clooney stars as divorce lawyer Miles Massey, who spars for the first half of the movie with professional gold digger Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones), through her various divorces and re-marriages. The two inevitably fall in love, and the story takes numerous twists and turns, none of which are the least bit believable. This may be because for the first time ever, the Coens are working from a script not their own (though they do get co-writing credit).
Clooney and Zeta-Jones are unquestionably two of the best looking people in movies, and their chemistry is certainly something to behold, but these are far from their best performances: CZJ is missing the cheerful naughtiness she brought to her Oscar-winning "Chicago" role, and as for Clooney, he has played essentially the same character in every one of his movies- with the singular exception of his revelatory performance in the Coens' "O Brother Where Art Thou." In 'Cruelty' he's back to his usual persona, though he's sure to revert to his 'O Brother' facial expressions every so often.
The Coens, as they did in 'Lebowski' (most notably with John Goodman's insane Vietnam vet and John Turturro's "Jesus"), attempt to populate the film with "colorful" characters, but more often than not they fall flat. Clooney's given an ever-present sidekick (Paul Adelstein) who does nothing of note other than cry at the slightest provocation. Tom Aldredge plays Clooney's on-life-support boss, apparently in the movie for no reason other than to fill the Coens' old-rich-man-behind-a-desk directors' trademark quota. And the music of Simon & Garfunkel is for some reason featured throughout, which can only evoke "The Graduate"- in a film that has nothing else whatsoever in common with "The Graduate."
The Coens have followed a 7-film winning streak with a 2-film losing streak. They'll likely rebound from their slump next year with their Tom Hanks-starring remake of "The Ladykillers," but let's hope next time the Coens don't confuse successful genre tribute with quality.