Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Adelstein, Edward Herrmann, Cedric the Entertainer, Geoffrey Rush, Stacey Travis, Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Jenkins
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content, language and brief violence)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 10/10/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
There's a first time for everything. I could confidently say that there was not a Coen brothers film that I did not enjoy. Until now, that is. Yes, there is, sadly, a first time for everything. Intolerable Cruelty finds Joel and Ethan Coen uneasily hitched to mainstream Hollywood, and the results are, well, uneasy. It's a bit depressing to reflect upon a movie in the mindset of trying to figure out who won, as if the filmmaking process boils down to a battle between the cunning of the creative and the brawn of the financially minded. I'd like to say that the artist vanquished the mogul leaving all to ruin in his footsteps, but I would be lying. The Coens' twisted sense of ironic humor is present throughout Intolerable Cruelty, but it doesn't support anything worthwhile. In other words, the jokes serve the plot, and the plot hasn't an idea in its head. If there's one thing the brothers Coen excel at, it's taking high-minded concepts and making them digestible. Better yet: They take high-minded concepts, digest them, and then regurgitate them for us to swallow. Maybe the metaphor could stand to be more appealing, but without the ideas, the only thing coming out of their intellectual digestive tract is hot air.
Opportunity is ample for a divorce lawyer in Beverly Hills, and for Miles Massey (George Clooney), it has meant an insanely successful career. His clients are the rich and (in)famous, and his style toys with the facts to the point that when a TV producer's wife comes to him looking for representation, he suggests that it was her husband and not her that was having an affair with the pool man. There's another man in need of Miles' assistance. His name is Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), and his infidelity is captured on video tape by private investigator Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer). Needless to say, his wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is ready to start divorce proceedings, but fate turns to Rex's favor when he hires Miles, while Marylin employs the services of Miles' professional rival Freddy Bender (Richard Jenkins). The evidence is stacked in Marylin's favor, but after a surprise witness testifies that she entered the marriage solely for the monetary benefits from a divorce, she ends up with nothing. Not one to give up easily, Marylin almost immediately becomes engaged to Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), a rich, eccentric oil tycoon who maintains that a prenuptial agreement is unnecessary, even if Marylin insists that he sign one.
Miles is enraptured with the conniving Marylin, dumbstruck by her upcoming nuptials, and yearning to learn her next move. The movie starts off funny if a little lower key than it should be reach the zany, offbeat heights it strives to achieve. The Rexroth divorce trial scene is a prime example. It's an amusing package, especially upon the entrance of Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), but with tighter pacing, it could have been hilarious. Instead, it desires quicker pacing which would speed up the cue pickup, particularly in the judge's repeated motto of "I'll allow it." The dialogue shines throughout the movie, and even though two other screenwriters (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) were involved, it's apparent that the Coens are responsible for the best bits. Of particular note are a quiet exchange between Miles and his sensitive assistant Wrigley (Paul Adelstein) as a witness gives testimony about her sexually deranged husband and Miles' early discussion with the TV producer's wife. Another Coen staple is the presence of unusual supporting characters, and they're here by the boatload. There's the old, sickly owner of the firm who's connected to multiple life-support systems, Gus, who has an obsession for "nailing asses," Doyle, who never shuts up, and an asthmatic assassin named Wheezy Joe.
About halfway through, the plot gets in the way, and the jokes begin to fall flat. Not even the quirky characters are safe, as a major plot twist lessens what we found humorous about some of them. The problem with the unfolding plot is that it is only interested with its themes on a surface level. The script has some ideas about love and marriage, and there's some irony present in the very limited thematic development. For example, during a climactic clichéd speech, Miles looks the way we would expect a man at his most desperate to appear, but on the contrary, he's at the top of the world. George Clooney does an admirable job of tuning his comic abilities (his facial expressions are priceless), but for some reason, his character never resonates. It's not his fault but the screenplay's. A successful professional in the midst of a midlife crisis is nothing new, and any development of his character beyond that is nil once the plot careens out of control. The same goes for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has even less to do and work with.
I just never connected with the movie, either; I tried, though. I searched and searched for something underneath but constantly came up empty-handed. Intolerable Cruelty does have one flash of inspired genius in the fate of Wheezy Joe, but the rest of it seems far too subdued. The Coen brothers have been kept at bay, and it's not an encouraging sight.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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