Admirers of the Coen Brothers have been wondering how their offbeat approach was going to mesh with that of unabashedly mainstream producer Brian Grazer ("Liar Liar," "Bowfinger"). The answer is that it doesn't, really: "Intolerable Cruelty," the Coens' intended commercial breakout, is a strange hybrid -- half "Raising Arizon," half "Ruthless People" -- in which moments of undeniable hilarity are separated by uncomfortable stretches of sitcom-like subperformance. It's one of those movies you recommend to a friend, then spend the next five minutes cataloging its flaws.
The film's best attributes seem directly attributable to the Coens, who continue their fascination with grotesques. Their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, announces this upfront, introducing divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney) as a gleaming set of perfect teeth we meet a good two scenes before the rest of the man. An appearance-obsessed legal shark who can twist any adultery scenario to his client's benefit, Miles is of late beginning to yearn for something more substantial in his life. He gets his chance when he encounters predatory litigant Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose hubby-fleecing scheme he unravels in a funny courtroom sequence. Miles is attracted; Marilyn is incensed. What follows is a clumsy pas de deux of passion and revenge, with both parties moving ever closer to their worst fear: exposure, be it emotional or financial.
Their world is one of crass private investigators (Cedric the Entertainer, giving us just enough) and naive cowboys who make the perfect marital dupes (Billy Bob Thornton, gone too quick from the story). Within the gleefully distorted characterizations lurk subtler verbal gags that may go right over the heads of audience members recruited by the movie's woefully banal ad campaign. Amid the scene-specific tomfoolery, the motivation of both leads occasionally gets lost in the shuffle -- a cardinal sin in comedy. A good 10 minutes of explication appears to be missing from the picture, and that, I suspect, is the fault of co-writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, whose meager oeuvre ranges from the incomplete ("Life") to the misbegotten ("Big Trouble").
The structural imbalance extends all the way to the movie's basic casting. While Clooney is a joy, relishing every opportunity to act the goon, Zeta-Jones just isn't complex enough to be a Coen lead. For a character like Marilyn to work, she requires an exaggerated dragon-lady edge to make even her nastiest machinations endearing. Zeta-Jones may be adept at playing an object of desire, but she frankly can't do funny. Not the best recipe for job security as the years advance.