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Intolerable Cruelty

A film review by Christopher Null - Copyright © 2003

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How can you not love the Coen brothers? The sibling creators of some of cinema's most classic films -- Fargo, Blood Simple, O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- are back at it, this time with their strangest production yet.

Oh, I don't mean strange as in Raising Arizona strange. I mean strange in that it's dearthly lacking the sophisticated humor we've come to expect from the duo. Strange in that it's so Hollywood-conventional as to make its existence puzzling at best, unnecessary at worst.

But we'll get to that.

In Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens return to the unique oddity that is southern California for the first time since the The Big Lebowski. This time they aren't skewering Hollywood proper, though, they're pillorying So-Cal morality (or lack thereof) when it comes to relationships.

Our protagonists are Miles Massey (George Clooney), a high-power divorce attorney who's never found a woman who could keep up with him, and Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones, the spitting image of Monica Bellucci here), at first Miles' adversary in a divorce case and quickly after the object of his desires. What develops is a cat and mouse game: Miles wants Marylin. Marylin wants money. Will they hook up or will they simply tear each other to shreds?

It's a cute setup -- though "cute" and "Coen brothers" should not really be spoken together -- but it's unfortunately too slight to make much of an impact. The cat-and-mousing has all of one plot twist in store for us. The remainder of the film hinges on Clooney and Zeta-Jones' banter, because the story itself is barely there. The pair have substantial chemistry together, but that doesn't come close to making the movie on its own. They toy with each other in a series of lighthearted and simple gags -- almost con games -- culminating in a vicious battle reminiscent of The War of the Roses. It's absurd, but it's not Coen-absurd, it's sitcom-absurd -- frivolous and silly but often fun, despite its appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Stealing the show are Cedric the Entertainer as a self-described "ass nailer" (read: private eye) and Paul Adelstein as one of Miles' law associates. Cedric is as in-your-face as Adelstein is reserved and nebbish; the dichotomy of having them both in the same movie is hysterical. Edward Herrmann is equally funny as the nave, oblivious, and embarrassingly horny first husband of Marylin.

At its heart, Intolerable Cruelty is as unlikely a Coen brothers movie as you could get, turning out to be little more than a straight romantic comedy. Give the same script to Nora Ephron and the end result probably wouldn't have been much different.

In fact, the Intolerable Cruelty script is a real oddity in the history of Coen brothers movies. Credited to Joel and Ethan Coen as well as the writing team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (who wrote some of the biggest dogs of the 1990s, including Destiny Turns on the Radio and Life), it's the brothers' first collaborative script since 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, when Sam Raimi pitched in.

The result is that the film is left with just a trace of that indescribable weirdness that Coen brothers movies have. The only piece of Intolerable Cruelty that makes it distinctly Coenized is the fact that there's a crazy old man in the flick. Come on, you guys can do better than that.

Intolerably sweet.


Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Producer: Ethan Coen, Brian Grazer

Screenwriter: Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Stars: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Julia Duffy, Jonathan Hadary

MPAA Rating:

Year of Release: 2003

Released on Video: Not Yet Available

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