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Published on October 23rd, 2003 | by Nik Huggins

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Intolerable Cruelty

Classification: 12A Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Paul Adelstein, Kristin Datillo, Julia Duffy, Edward Herrmann, Stacey Travis

The Coen Brothers’ latest wink to cinema history is Intolerable Cruelty, a battle of the sexes-themed romantic comedy surrounding the legal trade in rich Hollywood husbands. Probably their least esoteric work to date, but still peppered with their wonderfully inventive visual style, Intolerable Cruelty finds Joel and Ethan exploring new territory with familiar friends and a couple of new faces, which might signal a shuffle slightly closer to the mainstream.

The real question with Intolerable Cruelty remains; can the Coen’s take hold of a genre as gasping for air as the Romantic Comedy and perform CPR with their enduring repertoire of cinematic talents? That’s what fans of their enduring body of work will be wondering. Fans of the Rom-Com genre (we know that you’re out there!) will just be pleased to see such suavity, sophistication and perfectly engineered teeth and hair on show, without getting distracted too heavily by the Coen’s wry but hilarious subversion of the material.

Lets get one thing straight from the start: This film is funny, so in one sense it has already succeeded where a thousand rom-coms have failed. Miles Massey (Clooney) and Marilyn Rexroth (Mrs Michael Douglas) are the predators at the top of their respective foodchains in the worlds’ most inhospitable social environment: Los Angeles. Following a pre-credits sequence involving an LA wife, her cuckolded husband and the pool cleaner, (that sets the tone energetically and illustrates
southern California’s predilection for keeping the spousal turnover rate very high) we are introduced to Massey in his natural habitat: the litigation chamber. The slick master of settlements, author of the legendary “Pre-nup” a formidable obstacle (as Miles finds out first hand when it is turned on him later in the movie) and overseer of numerous comfortable divorce closures, Massey is bored of constantly winning and desires a new challenge. Enter the dame, and her attorney. Marilyn Rexroth, professional gold digger, is staking her claim for a slice of husband number ones’ vast fortune with only Massey’s impressive battery of legalese standing in her way. Cold, distant and seemingly unattainable the soon-to-be-former Mrs Rexroth embodies a challenge Massey instantly wants to take up. So ensues a game of sexual pursuit swirling with elaborate misdirection and fuelled by the paranoia that they are both simply out to take each other for a ride. As each party jostles for the upper hand a deeper mutual attraction is unmasked that finds itself constantly mitigated by the rigours of a society that demands vast wealth, no matter how it is achieved.

After Hugh and Sandra fell out of the running early with Two Weeks Notice, it’s left to George and Catherine to battle it out with Ewan and Renee for the onscreen-couple-with-the-most-chemistry-award 2003. Down With Love wears its influences much more ostentatiously on its well-tailored sleeves, with the tongue in cheek fifties references at every turn, but Intolerable Cruelty is just as indebted to the past. Whereas Down With Love took as its template the fluffy Technicolor daydreams of the 1950’s inhabited by Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Intolerable Cruelty looked back a bit further to the 40’s and the slightly darker, sexually-charged screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, where the repressed chemistry between the two main leads manifested itself in acerbic verbal interplay and witty one-liners.

However for this kind of film to work there has to be the equivalent of a whole laboratories’ worth of chemistry up onscreen, and Intolerable Cruelty, despite showing evidence that the necessary ingredients are there, just fails to get the proportions exactly right. The major stumbling block preventing the film from being an effective romantic comedy, with playfully satirical intent, is the subversion of the material by the Coens. Their customary penchant for fusing generic elements and making them work, particularly in work they have originated themselves, comes a little unstuck here, resulting in a dislocation of the material from the creative personnel that leaves the audience bemused as to what the film is trying to achieve. The basics of the story lends itself unfavourably to the Coens’ playful subversion of classic paradigms, and most cripplingly of all, one half of the couple that should smoulder seems to have been left out of the jokes. Clooney is a delight to watch, and really carries the movie. Full of twitches and double takes, he manages to undermine his usual screen assuredness enough to carry off moments of great hilarity without ever compromising his suavity. On the other hand, wherein lies the films singular biggest failing, Catherine Zeta Jones in a performance of remarkable naivety, apparently thinks that she’s making a straight romantic comedy. It is almost as if the Coen’s are utilising her off-screen persona to satirise her, not the film’s subject. Instead of making her an agent through which they can convey criticism of myriad Hollywood mores and excesses, they set her up as a conniving man-eater that just leaves you coming back again and again to the parallels between this film and her private life, and imagining Clooney and the boys having a good laugh at her off set.

With no discernable touch for comedy, in stark contrast to the irrepressible Clooney, CZJ struggles to remain true to a traditional notion of the rom-com that is slowly eroded by a pair of filmmakers who are trying to say something more, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully. A casting disaster or a cynical trick by two of contemporary cinema’s leading exponents? The decision entertains no matter how you look at it.

Intolerable Cruelty is definitely the most lacklustre Coen Brothers movie to date, a label that should still alert potential viewers to the fact that it is way more dynamic than your average one-note romantic comedy. A handful of priceless scenes, beginning with the opening set piece and ending with the hit man mix-up, coupled with Clooney’s performance and a number of cameos that spice things up (Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton both take their turn as cuckolded husbands) make this film very entertaining but ultimately flawed. Perhaps it really is impossible to make a good romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty is one of the most enjoyable in a long list of glorious failures.


About the Author

Nik Huggins

Cinema has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and when something takes hold of your life so completely it's only natural to want to shout about it. To the relief of everyone who gets bored with me harping on about great movies they'll never see, I started writing for Future Movies in the summer of 2001.



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