Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have been making original, offbeat movies since the late 80’s. Their unique style and skewed vision have produced the masterpieces Raising Arizona and Fargo, as well as other top-notch pictures like O Brother Where Art Thou and Barton Fink. Their latest picture - Intolerable Cruelty - is different in that it is the first time the Coen brothers have not originated their own material. Instead, they took an already existing screenplay and “weirded it up.” The end result is probably the most commercial of the Coens’ movies, yet it also has enough patented strangeness to satisfy the hardcore fans.
George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a cheerfully ferocious divorce lawyer who takes great pleasure in his own lack of career morality. One afternoon, he is visited by Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), a very rich man who was videotaped cheating on his wife. Since they had no pre-nup, Rexroth is concerned that his wife will take a large percentage of his massive fortune. Miles assures him there’s no need for worry; he can make it all look like the woman’s fault.
The first arbitration brings a major surprise: Rexroth’s wife Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is staggeringly beautiful. Miles is very attracted to her at the same time that he is trying to discredit her. Even when he decimates her in court by proving that she is a serial divorcee, Miles wants to pursue a relationship with Marilyn. He thinks she’s interested in him as well, but the woman throws him for a loop. Six months after the court hearing, she shows up in his office with her new fiancée, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), an oil tycoon. Since Miles is such a tough negotiator, she wants him to draft one of his famous pre-nups indicating that she will never see a cent should she divorce Howard. This development only intrigues Miles more. His passion for Marilyn burns brighter than ever, and despite her engagement, she sends him obvious signals in return. From this point, there are other story developments that are best left unstated, although you can doubtlessly guess that a relationship between Miles and Marilyn is imminent.
One of the criticisms that have been leveled against the Coen brothers is that they take an ironic, detached view of their characters. In other words, the characters are never relatable to the audience; they are just elements of the joke. I’ve never bought into that criticism, although I think it applies here for the first time. The relationship between Miles and Marilyn never feels authentic. I like the simplicity with which the screenplay boils down his attraction to her (“You fascinate me,” he says gleefully) but I never sensed any real love between the two of them. A more conventional screenplay would have emphasized the tender moments over the wacky moments. It would have sent the message “Love conquers all.” Because Intolerable Cruelty detaches itself from any genuine emotions, it ends up sending the message “Someone will get screwed in the end.” Remember the last scene of Basic Instinct when Sharon Stone reaches under the bed for the ice pick, then decides to put it back for the time being? The relationship between Miles and Marilyn made me recall that scene. I don’t believe they will live happily ever after. Someone will get the ice pick.
That’s a pretty hefty criticism of a romantic comedy; however, I don’t think the Coens have disappointed here. For whatever it lacks in heart, Intolerable Cruelty makes up for in satire. Sure, it would have been a warmer, fuzzier picture under another director. It also would have been a generic laugher about two cold-hearted people who change after finding true love. What the Coen brothers do instead is craft a wickedly funny story about the darker side of marriage. When love fades, they argue, people set out to win. The movie makes fun of the whole concept that two people who once loved each other enormously can turn into bitter opponents, determined to royally screw each other. The film has fun with that concept. Miles is open about his desire to win for his clients at any cost. Marilyn makes no attempt to hide the fact that she marries – and divorces – for money.
I laughed a lot at Intolerable Cruelty for that reason. It somehow feels like it’s subverting the whole genre of romantic comedies (I genre I enjoy, incidentally). The movie takes chances in the way it throws a plethora of self-serving characters together to watch how their manipulative natures collide.
The performances are very good here. George Clooney again shows a flair for comedy. He gives interesting line readings and develops unusual body language for Miles. The actor is really in tune with the off-center tone of his directors. Catherine Zeta-Jones is equally funny. She brings a bewitching quality to Marilyn; the character knows her stunning beauty turns men into Jello, and she uses that to her advantage. The supporting cast and characters are memorable as well, particularly a hit man named Wheezy Joe. His final scene in the movie provides what is possibly the biggest laugh I’ve had at a movie all year. It’s pure Coen magic.
I’m recommending Intolerable Cruelty as a comedy. It works very well on that level. You have to go in wanting to laugh. Those looking for a heartwarming romance are likely to be aghast. This film is like a Trojan horse; it pretends to be all cute and cuddly, but underneath that façade are some very large fangs.
( out of four)
Intolerable Cruelty is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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