Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Miles Massey (George Clooney) is the preeminent divorce attorney in Los Angeles. But after years of bankrupting homes after people have broken them (this allusion may be too tricky), hes grown tired of the same old same old. Enter Marilyn Roxroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a conniving gold digger who has been ruined by Massey defending her dimwitted hubby (Edward Herrmann). Now shes out for revenge, which could be in the form of romancing Massey while bringing him down.
Intolerable Cruelty is something of a strange breed. It’s the Coens most striving foray into mainstream success, with the weight of the world on Clooney and Zeta-Jones exchanging sparks and verbal repartee. For the most part, things work: the leads do have a winning chemistry; Zeta-Jones is positively glowing in Roger Deakins’ beautifully milky cinematography (she found out she pregnant late in the shoot, which could explain the glow).
The stumbling block for Intolerable Cruelty and its central romance is that neither of the leads, though at times charming, isn’t exactly likable or able to root for. An integral part of any romantic comedy is empathy for the leads so much that we want them to get together, possibly with swirling crescendos. But in Intolerable Cruelty, both leads make a living off deceiving and taking advantage of others. So while their War of the Roses-esque pursuit to out-scam the other can provide some entertaining twists (and some forced and out of place), the whole duplicitous one-upsmanship doesn’t blossom credible love between the leads or the audience.
I have a strong feeling that Intolerable Cruelty was a story the Coens hopped on late, did some rewrites and invited old Coen friends to join in the jubilee. This is the first time the Coens have worked with other writers (the people who brought us such duds as (Big Trouble and Life), and certain storylines or subplots that glaringly feel disjointed from the screwball-comedy tone of the film. An asthmatic hit man named Wheezy Joe (who got the biggest laugh with his demise) is funny but in the wrong Coen film. When Clooney and Zeta-Jones both hire the services of Wheezy Joe to off the other, you know the story took a fantastical wrong turn. A creepy decrepit owner of Clooney’s law firm also feels like a leftover from a different film. This movie also has the most ripping up of legal documents I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Clooney is quite funny as a chattering legal eagle with a Cary Grant edge. Hes ready and willing to play against his movie star image, which works wonders for comedy, though the running gag where he must look at his teeth in any reflective surface never takes off. It took me until Intolerable Cruelty to realize how much of a beautiful woman Zeta-Jones is. Her warm smile could light up an auditorium. The supporting characters are all underused but very memorable. The opening with Geoffrey Rush’s TV exec walking in on his canoodling wife is very funny, and he plays the long-haired arrogant type well. Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious as a private eye determined to ”nail yo ass” that I started privately wishing the film would spin to follow his life and not Clooney’s.
Intolerable Cruelty is a nice diversion for the Coens, with some good laughs here and there (my favorite being the courtroom scene where Clooney and Zeta-Jones go head-to-head for the first time), but one would hope that the Coens will get back to doing hat they do best, which is quirky yet beautiful independent films. In the end, it seems that the Coens have created an oddity for themselves — a normal movie. We expect more Joel and Ethan.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Posted on October 14, 2003, in 2003 Movies and tagged billy bob thornton, catherine zeta-jones, cedric the entertainer, coens, dark comedy, geoffrey rush, george clooney, richard jenkins, romance. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.