Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Intolerable Cruelty

Published on: March 23rd, 2004



USA 2003 : Joel COEN : 100 mins

Most Coen brothers fans apparently aren ’t keen on Intolerable Cruelty  – widely described as easily the pair ’s most overtly commercial project to date (how easily it ’s forgotten that, at the time, The Hudsucker Proxy supposedly represented a step into the mainstream). On the other hand, those who ’ve previously been immune to the Coen charms have found this movie much more … tolerable.

Personally speaking, I ’d yield to no-one in my admiration of their debut Blood Simple  – a film which still lurks just outside my all-time top ten. Hudsucker and The Big Lebowski are both very entertaining, and Fargo, Miller ’s Crossing, Barton Fink and O Brother all have their moments. But I went right off the brothers with The Man Who Wasn ’t There, a film which looked amazing but smelled vile. Intolerable Cruelty, though shot by the same cinematographer (Roger Deakins) doesn ’t look so good, but nor does it leave such a nasty taste in the mouth. Then again, it doesn ’t leave much of any kind of taste at all: this is a moderately enjoyable romantic/courtroom comedy, witty enough to remain watchable, but in retrospect slim, forgettable stuff.

Catherine Zeta Jones in Intolerable CrueltyThe plot is suitably twisty: hot-shot Los Angeles divorce-lawyer Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a legend in the field of matrimonial law for his water-tight pre-nuptial agreements, and for his ability to win even the most challenging cases. These include defending wealthy Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), who gets embroiled in a messy  – and potentially ruinous  – divorce initiated by his gold-digging wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Massey foils Marylin ’s plans, but she isn ’t going to be thwarted quite so easily …

The Coens again cast Clooney as a preening narcissist: in O Brother his character was obsessed with his hair; this time it ’s his gleaming teeth. In fact, Clooney makes a surreal first appearance, his gnashers appearing disembodied, bathed in blue neon as he sits in a dentist ’s chair, receiving treatment and making a call. Clooney doesn ’t seem so relaxed as he did in O Brother, and at times works rather too hard to milk whatever laughs are to be found in a screenplay (by the Coens, plus Ramsey Stone and John Romano) which is lumbering when it should be nimble.

Zeta-Jones doesn ’t fare much better: the calculating Marylin is a reserved sort, so the actress must therefore rely much more on the dialogue than Clooney, who can at least resort to physical comedy or all-out mugging when all else fails. That said, the leads at least get plenty of screen time, which is more than can be said for the likes of Hermann, Billy Bob Thornton (as Marylin ’s post-Rex conquest) or Geoffrey Rush (who opens and closes proceedings as a cuckolded TV producer), all of whom are unwisely relegated to the sidelines.

Instead, it ’s the smaller roles that make the biggest impression  – casting director Ellen Chenoweth has found a real gallery of grotesques and weirdos to fill the bit-parts and cameos, and it ’s during these brief grace notes that the Coens briefly click into their stride. Watch out for Mary Gillis as a deadpan court stenographer, Jonathan Hadary as an energetically camp  “Swiss ” star-witness, Irwin Keyes as asthmatic man-mountain hitman Wheezy Joe, and, as viciously acerbic waitress Marge, Mary Pat Gleason (a veteran character-actress, memorable as the hapless Martha Corey in Nicholas Hytner ’s 1996 The Crucible, rather less so as  ‘Heavyish Woman ’ in Bruce Almighty.) These folk are what keep Intolerable Cruelty ticking along  – wouldn ’t it have been better for everyone if the Coens had the guts and originality to concentrate on them, instead of working so hard to make us interested in the over-familiar, hyper-glam likes of Clooney and Zeta-Jones?

24th October, 2003
(seen same day, UGC Cinema, Boldon)

by Neil Young