Intolerable Cruelty
review by Gregory Avery, 17 October 2003

Going Mainstream

Intolerable Cruelty is the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen's take on a commercial Hollywood comedy, which they smite to the ground and happily deliver a thorough pummeling to.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a successful attorney specializing in matrimonial law, who is first introduced to us, like the Cheshire cat, through his grin -- one of his most powerful weapons deployed in the use of negotiating and defeating the opposite party in a courtroom (and Clooney was a really good sport in letting the Coens do this to him). When he meets Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he senses something below her relentlessly poised facade (we even see his eyes flare), and he's right -- just like him, she is a born and highly-skilled strategist and conniver, only her specialty is in the fleecing of one gullible husband after another, perchance her revenge for what men have done to women through the millennia.

There has been some voicings of concern over the Coens going mainstream (by coincidence, this picture came to their attention after their planned screen adaptation of James Dickey's novel To the White Sea fell apart at the very last minute), but there is no cause for alarm, especially when Clooney and Zeta-Jones recognize a kinship in each other by trading romantic verse; they end up in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, the "Wee Kirk of the Heather", where someone performs "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" on the bagpipes. (There is usually a running motif in each of the Coens' movies, and Simon and Garfunkle happens to be it in this one.) There's running talk about "the Massey pre-nup", which "has never been penetrated", and about the guide who helped lead Sir Edmund Hillary up Mt. Everest; as well as a trial witness who is introduced the same way Rufus T. Firefly was introduced at a Freedonia reception in Duck Soup. The film also contains the single funniest moment in anything I've seen so far this year (it involves the confusion of two objects).

Clooney's performance involves great style which is delivered with seemingly effortless ease (note how he sits the first time we see him in the movie behind the desk of his office), while also being able to play broad moments when the story calls for it. This is the type of performance which is actually very hard to do, since the performer has to gage how far to play things with sabotaging his acting or, for that matter, the movie itself. Cary Grant (who inevitably pops to mind in comparison) could play suave while doing some good, comedic sparring in films like Mr. Lucky (where he also did it in rhyming slang) and His Girl Friday. Clooney is both suave and can spar well, but he can also deliver goofy, even self-parodying moments that Grant could never quite pull off. This is arguably Clooney's best screen work to date.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, by comparison, plays cool, cool, cool, and I found her to be more interesting, here, than the hard-puffing work she put into her appearance in Chicago (where she never did quite get Velma Kelly's solo turns exactly right). She maintains a glittering intensity along with the sangfroid, something that keeps us guessing to the end over whether her character is completely mercenary or still has the capacity to feel. She certainly seems warmer compared to her friends -- divorced, rich women all -- who are depicted in scenes that are staged as if they were Greco-Roman sylphs reclining by an enchanted elysian pool.

But, primarily, this movie turns out to be about the joys of love, wherein Clooney's character, thoroughly discombobulated by the end, comes to realize that there is newfound meaning in his life and that all his cynical words and deeds are but for naught. The film offers the wicked amusement of seeing when and how a calculating woman will deliver the fer-de-lance to a variety of men, but by the end we end up yearning to see whether the two main characters will come halfway and allow love to triumph over all.

Directed by:
Joel Coen

George Clooney
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Paul Adelstein
Edward Hermann
Richard Jenkins
Cedric the Entertainer
Geoffrey Rush 
Billy Bob Thornton

Written by:
Robert Ramsey
Matthew Stone
Ethan Coen 
Joel Coen
John Romano

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.






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