Intolerable Cruelty, Venice Film Festival

Stars shine in Coen brothers' blend of black humour and box-office appeal
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The Independent Culture

As a rule of thumb at film festivals, the bigger the stars on the red carpet (or in Venice's case, blue carpet), the worse the movie will be on screen. Intolerable Cruelty, the newest comedy from the kings of offbeat American cinema, premiering as a "work in progress" (some scenes may be added before the US release), is a glorious exception to that rule.

Hysterical cries from the crowd of "George! George!" were reportedly audible across the lagoon in San Marco when George Clooney stepped on to the blue carpet at the Palazzo del Cinema. But the laughs were just as loud for the movie, the standing ovation deafening, and for once, at an official screening, quite sincere.

After riffing on Clark Gable in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, his first collaboration with the writing-directing twins Joel and Ethan Coen (Barton Fink, Fargo), Clooney gives his most Cary Grant-like performance yet for Intolerable Cruelty, playing a scarily successful divorce attorney named Miles Massey, a smooth but sharkish charmer with dazzling teeth and fast-firing cuffs.

The skintight script throws Massey up against Marilyn, a top-class gold-digger in a red dress, gleefully performed by Catherine Zeta Jones playing off her image and more than holding her own against George.

The result is a wickedly effective black comedy about divorce, greed and unexpected death, featuring music by Simon and Garfunkel, fluffy dogs, deadly asthma inhalers and a brochure called "Living Without Intestines". In other words, it is the usual quirky mix of whimsy and mordant wit that fans expect from the Coen Brothers, but in a calculatedly commercial package.

Full of glorious surprises and sudden twists, the genre-switching film is at once a courtroom drama, a farce and a love story, featuring blackhearted characters who soften as the film goes on and become rather endearing, even when they are plotting to kill one another.

The fine-grained sprinkling of perfectly freakish minor characters and recurring leitmotifs is as important to the film's overall texture and effect as the leads and the complex plot. The dialogue is vintage Coen, delivered with opera buffo precision by the cast.

With every Coen film there is a cinematic touchstone or two at play, and here it is the classic screwballs by the master comedy director Preston Sturges, especially his The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), although there are also flashes of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks.

Some Coen purists grumbled after seeing the press show that the brothers have sold out, and true, the camera-work here is perhaps a bit less flashy than usual, the whole package more accessible. But who could begrudge them or even Clooney, who needs a hit these days, a chance to make enough to finance their more eccentric future projects.