Intolerable Cruelty (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For whatever reason, the Coen Brothers' comedies (such as Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski) have always garnered less critical attention than the filmmakers' more serious fare (such as Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Fargo). Nevertheless, for those who like intelligent, quirky movies filled with big laughs, dry wit, and other small pleasures, it's difficult to beat Joel and Ethan Coen's humorous outings. Intolerable Cruelty is the most recent of these - a film that takes the traditional romantic comedy and tweaks it by way of The War of the Roses. Rarely has strife between the sexes been so ruthless, so civilized, and so funny.

The combatants are attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney) and fortune-hunter Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The only thing stronger than their attraction to one another is their need to win. Miles, who is already wealthy, is driven by the desire to savor "the ultimate destruction of [his] opponent." Marylin, on the other hand, is simply looking for "wealth, independence, and freedom." Their first skirmish occurs when Miles represents Marylin's philandering husband, Rex (Edward Herrmann), in a divorce action. It is not fated to be the last time these two will encounter each other, inside or outside of the courtroom and the bedroom.

Perfect casting is doubtlessly one of the reasons why Intolerable Cruelty succeeds as unconditionally as it does. It's hard to think of anyone better than charming George Clooney to play the smooth, preening Miles, who never passes up an opportunity to check on his smile in a mirror. As regal as she is classically beautiful, Catherine Zeta-Jones radiates a cool sensuality that's impossible to ignore. Marylin is constantly on low burn, but there are a couple of occasions when she ignites in Clooney's company. The dance these two do around each other makes the moves of an average screen couple appear clumsy and poorly choreographed.

The Coens' fingerprints are all over the production, as one might reasonably expect. The screenplay has real bite, and some of the best exchanges are memorable. Miles to Marylin: "I assume you're a carnivore." Her response: "You have no idea." Rex to Miles: "My wife has me between a rock and a hard place." His reply: "That's her job. Respect her for it." The visuals are stylish; several of the jokes have sudden, unexpected punch lines; and Carter Burwell's score is knowingly over-the-top in the way it parodies melodramatic movie music. Plus, there's even a warning about the dangers of using an inhaler (although this will not be mistaken for a public service announcement).

If there are jokes that miss their targets, they are few and far between. But it isn't all fun and games. The Coens take the time to allow Miles and Marylin to develop beyond the thin caricatures they initially seem to be. Miles is undergoing a mid-life crisis. He no longer experiences joy from winning court cases. Meanwhile, Marylin begins to question her life's goal when she realizes that money makes for a cold companion during lonely nights. None of this stops these two from crossing swords, but it heightens our interest in the results of the battles.

As much fun as the Coens have with the conventions of the genre, and despite the great delight they take in flouting our expectations, they never venture too far from the familiar trail. Intolerable Cruelty maintains a jaunty tone throughout, even as the storyline criss-crosses from con game to romance and back. The ending is satisfying on its own terms, which may not be the same ones under which more traditional romantic comedies operate. And, while there are similarities to Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses, Intolerable Cruelty lacks the earlier film's bleak, black attitude. By comparison, one could almost call the Coens' approach optimistic.

I haven't liked every film the Coens have made, but even the least impressive title on their resume can at least claim to be interesting. Intolerable Cruelty is one of their better comedies, and, once 2003 has drawn to a close, it will likely be regarded as one of the year's funniest motion pictures. The only intolerable cruelty associated with this picture is reserved for those who miss the opportunity to see it.

Intolerable Cruelty (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1