Rated PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Joel Coen. Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein.
Forget for a moment the title, which is reminiscent of late-night cablecore, and the above-the-title star wattage. This is a Coen brothers movie. The snappy screwball patter, the cinemacrobatics of cameraman Roger Deakins, the gently satirical poking of Beverly Hills bourgeoisie, the loopy farcical tone – consider this a companion piece to 1998’s The Big Lebowski. There’s even a standout oddball, comparable to John Turturro’s scene-stealing turn as "Jesus": Here, it’s Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), a mincing, malapropian concierge with a Pomeranian lapdog (uncredited) and his own trumpet flourishes in Carter Burwell’s score. Like Lebowski, Cruelty doesn’t have the epic reach of the Coens’ very best work; it doesn’t have the moral gravity of Fargo or Miller’s Crossing, for example, or even the dear heart beating inside Raising Arizona. But it is wonderful for what it is: a delightful, thoroughly satisfying comedy of modern manners. Clooney plays ace divorce attorney Miles Massey – confident, successful, and bored. Enter Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), a gorgeous professional divorcée who almost, almost takes Massey’s hapless client (Herrmann) to the cleaners. Yet cynical Miles is charmed by his lovely adversary. Can he win her – even after she takes up with a lunatic oil baron (Thornton, obviously enjoying himself) and weds him in a garden ceremony with a singing priest (Colin Linden) and no pre-nup? I’ll say no more about the plot, except that it spins a convoluted web involving a giant poodle, barbecue sauce, Caesar’s Palace, and a breathless hit man named Wheezy Joe. Sounds Coenesque, doesn’t it? That’s not even half of it. The comic details are great fun. But *Cruelty works because it’s an actors’ movie at heart, and Clooney and Zeta-Jones are beautifully matched. You’d never guess the script (originally conceived by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, who are co-credited here) had been rattling around Hollywood for a decade with everyone and her brother attached. Clooney seems at home in the Coens’ wacky milieu, but he’s every bit a leading man just the same – rakishly energetic enough to growl, almost bellow, "You fascinate me!" to his calculating, wicked lady love. There’s genuine, gaga heat in how he pants after Zeta-Jones, who is her usual silkily patrician self. She’s the human equivalent of a Michel Cluizel chocolate bar; you can’t help but imagine her melting in Clooney’s priapic grasp in the goofy, round satin-topped bed at Caesar’s. The lovers’ chemistry lends a welcome carnality to the film, balancing out the filmmakers’ more arch, quixotic tendencies. Who knew the Coens could be so … well … hot?
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