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Intolerable Cruelty (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Intolerable Cruelty


Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Duffy, Jonathan Hadary, Tom Aldredge, Stacey Travis, Jack Kyle, Irwin Keyes, Judith Drake, Royce Applegate, George Ives, Booth Coleman and Kristin Dattilo.

Screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.

Directed by Joel Coen.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  Rated PG-13.  100 minutes.

It almost seems unfair to the rest of the world that there could be two people in the world who are as cool, talented and just damned good-looking as George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones are in this film.  It wouldn’t work if they just had the attitude.  It wouldn’t work if they just had the acting chops.  Even the innate beauty alone couldn’t carry a film.  (Okay, maybe it could for a while.) 

However, these two have the whole package, plus a convincing natural chemistry that reminds you they may be striking apart, but they’re GORGEOUS together.  As long as the two are on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off them.  This is what they call good old-fashioned star quality.

The Coen Brothers’ homage to the screwball comedies of the Hollywood studio era needed that kind of star power.  For, though this film is as close to mainstream as the Coens have ever gotten (and maybe ever will), it still takes place in a broad, over-the-top, surreal, passionate, not-really-realistic world.  

The brothers are better known for their dramas (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blood Simple) than their more problematic history with comedies (The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy).

This film starts off with a wickedly simple premise.  A self-confident, cynical, win-at-all-costs divorce lawyer falls in love with a gorgeous serial divorcé who makes her living on her rich ex-husband’s alimony payments.  Can two people whose whole lives revolve around a disbelief in true love fall for each other?  Since each one knows the other is only out for themselves, can they learn to trust?  Should they even try?  Can they fight their own natures and not screw the other one over?

Clooney’s character, Miles Massey, is a legend amongst divorce attorneys for having created a perfectly impregnable pre-nuptial agreement.  He first meets Zeta-Jones’ Marylin when he represents her husband, an executive with a weakness for girls and trains (Edward Hermann), in their divorce. 

Massey is losing his passion for his cutthroat profession, and he becomes completely fascinated by the beautiful divorcée.  It is not only her beauty that intrigues Massey, it is her totally ruthless charm and guile.  He is by taken surprise when she soon is coming to him with her next potential husband, a Texas millionaire (Billy Bob Thornton) to set up a pre-nup to protect him.  Massey can’t figure out what she is up to, and that just makes her even more fascinating to him.

Of course, being a Coen film, there is the requisite rogue’s gallery of eccentrics and malcontents floating around, including Massey’s divorce attorney colleague, who is a closet cheeseball romantic (Paul Adelstein).  There is also a flamboyantly gay concierge (Jonathan Hadary), a cheesy Australian TV producer turned bum (Geoffrey Rush), a woman who bilked her ex out of his fortune, but is now afraid to leave the house for fear of being bilked herself (Julia Duffy), a cynical private eye who specializes in divorce cases (Cedric the Entertainer), an extremely aged law partner and a hit man named Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes).

The film isn’t perfect.  Though they obviously have a great love of cinema history, the biggest problem with the Coen’s work is that the ironic detachment they often feel for their projects can tend keep the audience at arm’s length.  Also, the fact that all the performances are extremely broad on purpose does not change the fact that it makes all the characters a little cartoonish.  But this film captures the feeling of the romantic comedies of Preston Sturges much better than most any other film of recent vintage.  The dialogue is quick and intelligent and funny.  I could almost see Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in these roles, and that’s one hell of a compliment.  (10/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: November 16, 2003.

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