Intolerable Cruelty

Calm down. Fears of a Coen disaster are averted by a fine romantic comedy.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 23 Oct 2003 by Craig Eastman
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There are many things in life doomed to failure. Soap stars taking up singing careers, for example. Or perhaps rich, bearded millionaire business men attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a variety of balloons and speedboats. David Blaine sitting in a Perspex box for 44 days. Stick to what you know seems to be the message, so when those daring purveyors of cinematic sensibility the Coen brothers announced their next project was a romantic comedy, the palms of millions of hands connected with foreheads the world over. Not only this, but apparently it would also be the first time the brothers would be working from a script that wasn't their own. Jesus! What have we come to? The humanity...

Fortunately for everyone involved (the general public included), reputations have remained largely intact, with Intolerable Cruelty turning out to be quite the surprise; no it's not typical Coen territory, but the brothers have breathed their own inimitable life into a stale genre, infusing it with subtle Coen quirkiness along the way. What at first appears to be another by-the-numbers carriage on the Clooney career wagon reveals itself to be an altogether more intriguing beast, even despite the involvement of ?ber beyatch Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The story centres around the antics of world-renowned divorce lawyer Miles Massey (the Cloonster), ladies man and creator of the Harvard-standard Massey Pre-nup, an impenetrable marriage contract that has never been circumvented. When Massey's client Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) comes to him having had his wife's P.I. "nail his ass" in bed with another woman, Massey sets about denying serial philanderer Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) her right to any of her wealthy husband's hard-earned. Proving in court that Marylin had first been introduced to Rex through a concierge whom she had instructed to find her an easy eligible target, Massey closes the case in Rex's favour, earning himself a huge fee and Marylin's contempt into the bargain.

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It's not long before Miles and Marylin's paths cross again, this time when Marylin approaches the lawyer for one of his famous pre-nups. Somewhat taken aback, Massey is introduced to Marylin's new husband-to-be; wealthy oil baron Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton). Finding her repentance somewhat suspect, Massey is skeptical of Marylin's motives but provides the couple with their contract nonetheless. To complicate matters, Miles is gradually falling for the Welsh stunner but there is nothing he can do, and by the time the service is conducted he's head over heels.

As if the heartache wasn't enough, Massey watches horrified as Doyle tears up and eats his pre-nup as an act of love after the pair are wed, knowing full well Marylin is going to take the oil tycoon for every penny when they inevitably split. Again the pair part ways, only for Marylin to approach Miles again, this time bemoaning the emptiness of her life as a rich but lonely single woman. Rushing to her side, Miles shows Marylin his tender side following a night of passion and before long the pair are rushing to Vegas to be married, pre-nup in hand.

Is it truly love, you ask, or is the scheming Marylin harbouring some nefarious scheme for revenge? I'll leave that up to you to guess. It's true that Intolerable Cruelty is as far from their roots as the Coens have dared stray to date, with many hardcore fans yelling "sell-out" as the brothers cook up by far and away their most commercially accessible film to date. True the plotting may be the lightweight stuff of genre standards, and other than a sideswipe at the decay of marriage values there's no deep moral pondering. This is as far removed from the dark humour of Fargo or the acid-trip mentality of The Big Lebowski as you can get, but fans need not fear too much. There's still plenty of trademark Coen idiosyncrasy, from Massey's president's speech at a meeting of divorce lawyer's (club motto "Let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder") to the offhand lunacy of a waiting room magazine called Living Without Intestines. Chuck in a gigantic asthmatic hitman called Wheezy Joe and there's plenty eccentricity on show to please the fans.

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Where the movie scores huge marks over its competition, however, is not only in such anarchic (and admittedly excellent) humour but also in the obvious chemistry between it's two leads. A mechanically smiling prima donna she may be, but there's no denying Catherine Zeta-Jones' immense allure and coupled with Clooney the pair positively sizzle when they're together. Damn that Clooney, between this and the excellent Out of Sight (also starring a mechanically smiling prima donna, albeit with a bigger ass) he must make a few Hollywood husbands nervous over their spouses faithfulness. Oozing a level of class and comic timing rarely seen since the days of Cary Grant, George does his cementing of reputation no harm at all with this number, reminding us all again why he's such a ladykiller yet remaining almost impossible for us jealous chaps to hate. Zeta-Jones manages to keep her end of the acting bargain too, managing quite a considerable level of comic awareness and oozing the kind of bubbling sexuality that makes us guys come over all helpless. For the moment, Catherine, I forgive you any prior indiscretions.

Like this month's other fine rom-com Down With Love, Intolerable Cruelty owes much of it's style to the comedy classics of yesteryear, only here it doesn't style itself around them aesthetically as that film did. Instead it relies more on the central premise of two canny leads running circles around each other, all the time failing to realise quite how much in love they really are. This hearkening back to classic structure (and arguably much better films) is something Hollywood seems to be cottoning on to, so much the better the Coens should be first on the bandwagon. Having said that it's still very much a contemporary film dealing with contemporary issues, it's just nice to be reminded there is still such a thing as old fashioned sophistication in comedy these days, especially when confronted by the tits 'n' farts ethos of such recent tripe as American Pie: The Wedding.

It might be far from the best film the Coen brothers have unleashed, but it's the finest romantic comedy of recent times by some margin, and it still has their mark indelibly splattered all over it. Coaxing as always a plethora of superb comic performances from their cast, Joel and Ethan have come out of their niche just long enough to slap mainstream pretenders in the face by making the most disposable of genres their bitch for 100 minutes. It's either a huge sellout in order to keep the studio happy and allow them some mad future project or a carefully calculated grift to play Hollywood at it's own game. Either way, few people are likely to be complaining, least of all the audience. Bloody good show. Panic averted.

I award this movie 4 out of 5 Yadda Yadda Units.

Joel Coen
Cast list:
George Clooney (Miles Massey)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marylin Rexroth)
Paul Adelstein (Wrigley)