Director : Joel Coen
Screenplay : Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone & John Romano)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : George Clooney (Miles Massey), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marilyn Rexroth), Geoffery Rush (Donovan Donaly), Cedric the Entertainer (Gus Petch), Edward Herrmann (Rex Rexworth), Paul Adlstein (Wrigley), Richard Jenkins (Freddy Bender), Billy Bob Thornton (Howard D. Doyle)
Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers movie that doesn’t really feel like a Coen Brothers movie. Most of their signature elements are there—exaggerated characters, witty dialogue, a strangely twisty plot—but it all feels dialed down. That does not, however, mean that Intolerable Cruelty is somehow a bad movie for its lack of Coen authorial presence. In fact, it is a frequently hilarious screwball comedy about the battle between the sexes, which here all boils down to one thing: money.
George Clooney, who turned in one of the best performances of his career and proved to be a gifted comic wit in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), treads some similar ground as Miles Massey, an extremely successful divorce attorney whose life achievement is the Massey Pre-Nup, an ironclad legal document so binding that Harvard Law School devotes an entire semester to studying it. Miles has money and a reputation, but he’s becoming bored with life; his cynical approach to human relationships, which essentially boils them down to legal jargon, has sapped him of his humanity.
Ironically, the fires of his cold heart are stoked by Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a shameless and sexy gold digger on the opposite side of the courtroom. Miles is representing her philandering husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), who was caught redhanded in bed by Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), a private investigator hired by Marilyn. Despite conclusive proof of Rex’s wandering ways, Miles still manages to work his magic in court so that Rex keeps everything and Marilyn gets nothing.
This is only the beginning of Miles and Marilyn’s strange tango of romance, seduction, and betrayal. Things get really complicated when Marilyn shows up with a new catch, this time Howard D. Doyle, a good ol’ boy oil tycoon played to the hilt by Billy Bob Thornton (a Coen veteran from The Man Who Wasn’t There) in characteristically scene-stealing fashion. Doyle is whole-heartedly in love with Marilyn, but Miles knows she’s just after his money, which turns him on even more. It’s her snaky deception and ruthlessness that makes her so appealing—and, of course, dangerous. But, as the old saying goes, it is a fool who looks for logic in the human heart.
The key to what works in Intolerable Cruelty is the sizzling chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones. Both are given characters who are reprehensible on paper, but they manage to make both Miles and Marilyn compelling and sympathetic, even when we suspect that their emotions are just ruses through which they can gain the upper hand. We know that Miles is clearly smitten—he even goes so far as to throw away his keynote address to the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide (N.O.M.A.N.) and give a from-the-heart speech about how his life has been transformed by true romance. Thus, the movie hinges on Marilyn’s transformation: Will she give in to the thralls of true love as Miles did, or will she maintain her cynical façade and continue to operate out of the assumption that love is just a tool for acquiring material wealth?
For all its cynicism and irony, Intolerable Cruelty, like most screwball comedies, is ultimately a celebration of the transformative power of attraction and romance. The Coen Brothers have often been accused of being cold and detached filmmakers—visual stylists with no real heart—but one only has to take a cursory glance beneath the surface of most of their films, particularly Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996), to recognize the clear beatings of a pair of sentimental hearts. Intolerable Cruelty, unfortunately, lacks the visual grandeur of their best works, but its heady mixture of cynicism and romance makes it a funny, tumultuous comedy of the sexes with a few genuinely hilarious surprises mixed in.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick