Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Crime | Romance
  • Director: Joel Coen
  • Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton


Divorce attorney Miles Massey has everything, a jet, a jet washer, three gardeners (or “those little lawn people” as he puts it), and even a marriage contract (The Massey Prenup) named after him. He seems to be unstoppable and completely invincible. That is, until he meets the beautiful, dangerous Marylin Rexroth. After being completely destroyed in court, Marylin formulates a plan that puts Miles in a position where he doesn’t know what to do. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t have what he wants the most.


  • The best thing about “Intolerable Cruelty” is that for once the Coen brothers made a movie that’s not in the least pretentious, but mainly silly. George Clooney gives one of his most memorable performances resembling Bruce Campbell’s wacky grimaces and timing at times (Campbell himself has a tiny, tiny cameo). Catherine Zeta-Jones is the heartless bitch once again. She doesn’t reinvent herself with “Intolerable Cruelty” but she knows the role by heart by now.

    The script is funny for the most part and features some really clever and witty lines. Sometimes the movie descends too much into silliness. Its main flaw, however, is that the story doesn’t really seem that important and characters are purposely unbelievable. That makes for some funny moments but after a while you grow a bit indifferent towards the whole thing.

    Watch “Intolerable Cruelty” for the great performances by the cast and try to ignore the obvious inconsistencies in the story. It won’t completely satisfy but it’s good enough for 100 minutes of fun.

  • I always forget this movie is a creation of the Coen Bros. I must have seen it 3 times at least. Every time I have revisited it, I find it surprising and novel. Despite this, I still can’t fully remember the plot, characters or actors from one time to the next.

    This could be a good thing as it is a movie that despite its apparent superficial chick-flick aesthetic, has superb characterisation and narrative depth. (Phew – get me!)
    Then again, this could be a bad thing. Meaning my medium term memory is packing up. Nowadays it’s only by having a simultaneous nuclear attack moment (or equivalent) can I fix this damn movie in my head:-
    “FOR EXAMPLE” :-

    Give me a movie name, and I’ll tell you what I first think of:

    · Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? 2003.
    I think of The Crossroads where they pick up a (historically genuine) blues guitarist from the 1930s and 40s called Tommy Johnson, who has sold his soul to the devil (not Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist who actually did sell his soul… (Fixing moment – My first Coen Movie)

    · Fargo 1996 brings Jerry Lundegaard’s craggy, confused and untethered, lying face to mind – full frontal. Oh, and the snowy highways with the car (yep the TV show recognised the inconic-isity of that one too). (Memory fixing moment was a particularly bright and refreshing Chardonnay.)

    · O yeah – Brad Pitt’s amazing portrayal of the bouncy superficial gum-chewing vacant sports instructor in Burn After Reading 2008. (Fixed by being with the family when we watched it first – doesn’t happen often.)

    Before watching Intolerable Cruelty again for this review, I didn’t possess any images or notable memories.
    Q. My fault or the film’s fault?
    A. So where did the Coens go wrong? : –

    The movie breaks open with a classic (stereotypical) Hollywood-Hills poolside farce. A be-pony-tailed Hollywood-type runs around screaming at a couple of rather gray uninteresting characters. Scene is thus set.
    (Geoffrey Rush is such an under-rated actor – he has a gentle and light touch – just watch his facial expressions.)

    Cut to George Clooney – sculpted, shiny, sharp, scurrilous, self-obsessed, seductive, single, smiling, suited, superficial – lawyer.
    Falls in love with a serial-gold-digger client.
    The End.

    The film is elegant, soft and effortless. Which is high praise coming from me. I save effortless for my top 10. Never used it on any other film before.
    The Clooney character (Miles Massey of Massey PreNup Fame) is patently vacuous and warrants little further investigation. He is very pretty though, and Clooney is also a comic genius.
    The gold-digger, Marylin is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones – looking stunning in a long red sleeve-dress – in fact I think she wears the same dress through the whole movie. Which is a good thing.
    When together, Miles Massey and Marylin complement each other like the two sides of a basketball. And they fight using quotes and epithets, and make love with the casual viciousness of a cornered honey-badger.
    Visually they are dazzling. Dazzling like Posh and Becks; dazzling like ‘O’ performed by Cirque de Soleil in Vegas; dazzling like Tom Cruise’s veneers; dazzling like my home-made Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
    And yet Marylin Gold-Digger remains unknown to us – throughout the movie she is a 2 dimensional cut-out in a red dress – apparently there just to fulfil our expectations of what a scheming Hollywood Hills gold-digger should be. And the womanly version of a brick-wall for Clooney to bounce his talent off. (All euphemisms are accepted here.)
    The Coen Brothers quickly fill in the Clooney character – we know him chapter and verse 10 minutes in. If we wrote film-scripts, we could invent and develop a response for his every situation.
    But I’d be a loss to know what Marylin would do in any given situation. This is deliberate perhaps on the part of the Coens – I can’t see it though. Very dissatisfying.

    The term “Coen Brothers” is synonymous with weird. Their best films often have a secondary character who is altogether bizarre, somewhat distasteful and yet totally mesmerizing and unique:
    In A Serious Man 2009 it is the seemingly confused and wheezing Rabbi Marshak. A bibelot squatting alone on a tapestry cushion in his Room of Curiosities, scaring teenage boys.
    In Intolerable Cruelty, the weird one is the maniacally deranged and grotesque senior partner, Herb Myerson. Filmed in monochrome, harshly lit and through a wide-angled lens, he is possibly the most scary organic thing the Coens have ever created. Stomach tubes, IV tubing, catheters and cannulae swing from every point on his body – making him look more like a set of Bagpipes than a pin-striped legal-leviathan. Wheezing and spluttering billing diatribes in a twisted Brooklyn brogue, he has my, and Clooney’s hair standing on end.
    (Thanks to VEEP (HBO) for the bagpipe simile.)
    I bet you can’t forget this image of Herb Myerson once you’ve experienced it. But having said that, in the context of the movie, this Herb Myerson scene sticks out like a tumescent teenager. It adds little to the story, little to the premise. It contributes to the comedy sure, and it enables Clooney to do some more crazy wide-eyed panicking à la Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. But even so, it looks a bit desperate on the part of the writers.

    There’s a feast of other great characters – Billy Bob Thornton’s True Texan – Howard D. Doyle of Doyle Oil. Just his name makes you smile – I loved this story about his Gran-Paa attending to a (company) labour dispute –
    “..but then the Government stepped in.
    They called it mediation.
    (Gran-Paa) called it incipient communism…”

    Oh, and there’s Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy. A flouncy be-dogged old-school, extremely camp bellboy with aspirations to primacy and self-importance. Wonderful.

    Not to forget a brief appearance by Wheezy Joe, a comedic borrowing of the be-toothed giant, Jaws, from the Bond movies of the late 70s.

    For such a smoothly presented story, it remains hard for me to write rhythmically about Intolerable Cruelty:-
    It’s not romantic.
    It does have comedy value – it is definitely one to watch with your significant other on a quiet Saturday night if you’re feeling lucky… Clooney is fabulous.
    The characters are fun to watch.
    But I can’t find any deviations, any “out of the box” thoughts or lateral thinking. Deviations to take this piece down a cul-de-sac of intrigue.

    This is difficult because I actually enjoyed watching the movie. I enjoyed the pacing; the acting; the plot – its hiccups and swerves; the statuesque beauty of Catherine Zeta-Jones; the clever nuggets of comedy joy in the writing and especially in Clooney’s responses to them. (He just seems to love being an actor, and his almost childish joy is infectious.)

    I suspect my problem here is because of the writing:- The visuals are great; The sound is fine; The acting is perfect; The casting without fault; The jokes within each vignette are tight, crisp and easy.
    But the writing has created this choppy jump-shot stop-start sequence of mini-stories. I look for reasons and it must be because Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t choose to adapt this particular story – they were commissioned by the Studio. And writer’s rooms (writing by consensus) create good one-liner jokes, but tend to lose their focus on medium and longer aspects of the narrative.
    And when you prostitute your creative skills for material goods – like what the Coens have done here – you are entering a Faustian pact for your soul AND YOU WILL PAY THE PRICE…

    Don’t forget it.

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