30 Years of Coens: Intolerable Cruelty

A comedy out of balance

Universal Pictures

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

• If Intolerable Cruelty doesn’t quite feel like a Coen brothers movie, that’s because in some respects it isn’t. The original story was by John Romano, an accomplished TV writer (Hill Street Blues, Party of Five) who went on to write the screenplays for Nights in Rodanthe and The Lincoln Lawyer. His idea was adapted into a script by the team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (Big Trouble, Soul Men). In 1994, the Coens were hired by the studio to do a rewrite—their first such hired-gun gig—and that was expected to be the extent of their involvement. The screenplay went through further rewrites, and other directors (notably Ron Howard) were connected to the project before it finally wound up on the plate of Jonathan Demme. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere contemplated using it as a vehicle to reunite post-Pretty Woman (they chose Runaway Bride instead), and it was later considered as another possible reunion opportunity for Julia Roberts, this time with Hugh Grant. But Demme ultimately dropped out and the Coens were enlisted to direct the movie after they failed to get funding for their intended adaptation of the James Dickey novel To The White Sea.

• The movie was the Coens’ first—and to date, only—stab at romantic comedy, though with generous helpings of noir, screwball, and Hollywood satire thrown in. As with The Hudsucker Proxy, it harkens back to the golden age of the screwball, though this time out the Coens dispensed with the stylized 1930s/1950s tone and setting, instead placing the film in the present day. Indeed, this was their first film not to be set in the (sometimes recent) past since Raising Arizona. The story follows Miles Massey (George Clooney), a superstar Los Angeles divorce attorney, and his tangles with Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a gold-digging maneater intent on “nailing the ass” of her wealthy, dim-witted, cheating husband (Edward Herrmann). Billy Bob Thornton and Richard Jenkins return from The Man Who Wasn’t There in supporting roles, and the cast is filled out by Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Paul Adelstein, and Julia Duffy.

• This was Clooney’s second collaboration with the Coens, and he is again in fine form unleashing his inner Cary-Grant screwball. As in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (and later in Burn After Reading), he has a signature gag mocking his perceived vanity. In O Brother, it was the pomade and hairnets; in Intolerable Cruelty, it’s his freshly whitened teeth, of which we get a black-lit view before we even see the rest of him. There’s more than a hint of Tony Shalhoub’s wonderful Freddy Riedenschneider to Miles Massey, too, a fact that is highlighted by both of Riedenschneider’s inferior legal foils (Jenkins and bit player George Ives) making return appearances to play opposing counsel. And there is a sequence, in which Massey flies to Vegas to give the cynical keynote at a conference and instead winds up having a mid-speech epiphany, that uncannily foreshadows Clooney’s role in Up In the Air.

• Fans of Clooney’s collaborations with the Coens might want to have a look at his self-directed performance in the 2008 movie Leatherheads. Unlike most of Clooney’s outings as a director, which bear the discernible influence of his friend and frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh, Leatherheads is Clooney’s clear attempt to make a Coens-style comedy. A throwback screwball about football in the 1920s, the movie—also starring Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski—is not particularly successful, but it’s an amiable diversion. For those interested in more details, my review is here.

• Unfortunately for Intolerable Cruelty, the affinity that the Coens and Clooney have shown for one another is nowhere in evidence when it comes to Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is principally the fault of the script, I think, though there’s blame enough to go around. The movie is set up as the kind of tart, battle-of-the-sexes picture that reached its pinnacle in the 1930s and 1940s, but Zeta-Jones’s character, Marylin, remains remote and inscrutable throughout the film, a femme fatale who’s wandered into another genre altogether. Her performance isn’t bad, but the structural disparity throws the movie sorely out of balance. She has no real chemistry with Clooney—nor, it seems, with the Coens, who give her precious little to do—rendering the movie’s central relationship decidedly sterile.

• Perhaps because so many other screenwriting hands played a role in Intolerable Cruelty, the movie has fewer of the Coens’ customary in-jokes than usual. Thornton, whose character in The Man Who Wasn’t There was borderline mute, returns as a chatterbox this time around, spouting nearly as much dialogue in his first onscreen minute as he did in the entire previous film. And we once again hear the all-purpose Coens put-down “smart guy,” this time from the mouth of Massey’s wizened boss. But there is one inside joke that may be the most inside of the Coens’ entire oeuvre. Readers of my entry on Fargo may recall that the soap opera Buscemi and Stormare’s characters were watching in the cabin featured genuine footage of a 1980s Detroit-area soap starring Bruce Campbell, the Sam Raimi regular who also appeared in the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy. Late in Intolerable Cruelty, there’s a crucial scene in which Massey and his partner are watching a hospital soap on television, only to see Thornton’s character appear onscreen—proving that he is in fact an actor and not, as believed, an oil millionaire. But also up there on the screen, half-obscured by a surgical mask, is Bruce Campbell, the Coens’ go-to guy for soap-opera cameos, real or invented.

• Despite its flaws, Intolerable Cruelty is a perfectly enjoyable movie. The dialogue is sharp, the plot swerves are clever, and Clooney is as appealing as ever. The movie is just caught betwixt and between, not romantic enough to be a romantic comedy and not quite dark enough to be a black comedy. It's hard not to wonder whether another director might have been more suited to the material, perhaps by warming up its chilliness a bit. Because ultimately the movie feels in-between in another way, too: Coens-y enough that it doesn’t quite feel mainstream, but not Coens-y enough that it quite feels like a Coens film. It's as if the brothers have their own cinematic version of the uncanny valley, and Intolerable Cruelty fell smack dab in the middle of it.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank Intolerable Cruelty among Coens films: #13 (out of 16)

Best line: “Well, I admire your loyalty—to lawyers, at least.”

Best visual: Miles Massey examining his teeth in the round of his spoon

Best sound: The squeak as Massey polishes his teeth with his finger in his office bathroom

Notable locales: Los Angeles, Las Vegas

Notable Influences: Howard Hawks

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “Nail his ass”

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: One, sort of (a friend of Marylin’s coughs up her drink at the club)

Next up: The Ladykillers