Intolerable Cruelty


My preference for unloved Coen Brothers films has led me to perhaps one of their most unloved films: 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty. While I would probably agree that this is not one of their better films, I still enjoyed it well enough. I see why people wouldn’t like or respect it, but I actually got pretty into it. So, so far my theory holds water; I really go for their lesser known comedies for some reason.

Like The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty is a Coen update of a familiar 1930s formula. I feel as if this film, obviously involving less Hayes Code-breaking elements, could be the plot of any 1930s romantic comedy starring the likes of Cary Grant or Irene Dunn. Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a foolish divorce attorney, very good at ending marriage but helpless in any other area of his life. He longs to totally annihilate an opponent, to get a client a divorce without settling at all. He sees his opportunity in Marylin Rexroth’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) divorce from her rich husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann). He ends up winning the case for Rex, but finds himself falling for Marylin, who now penniless, must marry again.


This really is a classic set up. Miles is the author of what it known as the Massey pre-nup, in which it is impossible for either party to profit from the marriage in question. He is set up as the guy who does not care for love, and just wants to win divorce cases. While his rehabilitation from this cynical viewpoint is slightly unbelievable, for the most part it works in the film. The whole idea is that of course Marylin is a schemer in the arena of marriage as well, so it becomes a competition as well as a romance. The ending is a foregone conclusion once you realize the type of movie the Coens are making here, but that doesn’t mean that getting there is overly predictable.

Any possible message the film has about modern marriage is really overshadowed by the two leads and the humor. Like many of the Coens’ films, one gets the feeling they like playing around with a particular formula more than really making a movie with a “message.” This movie ends up seeming a bit shallow, but it’s still pretty enjoyable from my point of view. Anytime they do go for meaning, as in marrying and divorcing people for wealth will leave you lonely, it ends up feeling a bit forced but not too horribly out of place. There’s a scene where Clooney’s character decides to turn over a new leaf and start working pro-bono, because the love of Zeta-Jones’ character has changed his outlook on life that is basically the whole film in microcosm. Up front you have a somewhat out of character speech from Clooney, but in the background you have a stupid and hilarious pun on a banner. The small jokes are usually more enjoyable than the big picture.


As with any collaboration with the Coens and Roger Deakins, one has to pay attention to the cinematography. What I appreciated about it here, while divorced (ha ha ha) from this movie I probably would not have appreciated it, is that it’s very over the top. You consistently have very high key lighting and vibrant colors, and during “dramatic” scenes they deliver a lot of comedy by going over the top with the camera moves. Unnecessary dollies in on character’s faces during the divorce trial and such. A professor of mine once said that comedy takes place in wides, and this movie has a bunch good ones. It’s nice when the cinematography itself can be humorous.


One slightly disappointing thing about this movie though, is George Clooney’s performance. It’s not bad or anything, but I feel like compared to other movies he’s done with the Coens’ it’s a bit more subdued and not necessarily better for it. It’s a minor thing, but I’ve come to love their collaborations and I can honestly say his presence in this movie (while it does probably help it) is not the best thing in it, if that makes sense. He shines brighter in his other films with them, which unfortunately brings down this one a bit by comparison. Though I have to admit I love how they cast him in general.

So my reaction to Intolerable Cruelty seems to be in line with the accepted one, just I’m only mild in my disapproval. By that I mean I barely disapprove at all, but don’t find it one of their best films either. A lot of small moments really hit in this movie, though the big picture is a little bit less satisfying than some of them. Once again, the visual style is a big part of the success of the film, and actually furthers the comedy. So while I liked Intolerable Cruelty, I wouldn’t say I loved it, but that’s fine.


“I said I wouldn’t whilst I wasn’t which implies no promise once I am.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:
Roger Ebert review
The Atlantic review
AV Club review

One response to “Intolerable Cruelty

  1. The Coen’s worst is still a lot better than most stuff out there. So yes, it’s a fine movie. Not perfect, but not terrible either. Nice review.

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