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Film: Intolerable Cruelty
October 26, 2003
Reporter : Peter Thompson

Peter's Verdict: one of the most accessible Coen brothers films ever
Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
Genre: romantic comedy
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Catherine Zeta-JonesFilm stars were invented early in the 20th century by the big Hollywood studios to sell movies, but they rapidly became a universe unto themselves, carefully nurtured by the media that fed off them. The studios no longer control the process the way they did — these days, it's more a case of the tail wagging the dog. But if anything, we're more obsessed than ever with celebrity.

Hollywood glamour for its own sake has never attracted the Coen brothers, but Intolerable Crueltyis full of it. For a start, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones are hot right now. And the film is about celebrity. It's about people who buy the whole package of fame and wealth and are prepared to live and die by it.

The tone is set very quickly by Geoffrey Rush's sleazy Australian television producer, Donovan Donaly. Arriving unexpectedly at his Beverly Hills mansion, he finds his wife entertaining the pool man…

Geoffrey RushFor once in his life, Donaly is innocent. But he's reduced to poverty when his wife enlists Miles Massey, the best divorce lawyer in town. Miles has a reputation as shiny as his teeth and people flock to him for advice.

George Clooney played Ulysses Everett McGill for the Coens in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Miles is a similar character.

Ethan Coen: "He's kind of glib and taken with himself, although in this movie George's character is more concerned with how his teeth look than his hair looks. I guess that's the principal character difference. So George sort of locked onto that. The movie has become about George's teeth."

George Clooney has the looks of a traditional Hollywood leading man, but he also has a natural affinity with comedy. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote Intolerable Crueltyeight years ago without a particular actor in mind.

The Coen BrothersJoel Coen: "The lynchpin for us in terms of doing it, what was the primary motivating factor in terms of our doing it, was the fact that George was interested and we thought he was so particularly right and would be so good in the lead part."

Miles's new client is Rex Rexroth. His wife Marylin has caught him with his pants down.

Miles has everything under control, as usual, but at the conference that follows, he sets eyes on Marylin for the first time.

Catherine Zeta-Jones: "We meet. There's a moment between us."

George Clooney: "A bolt of lightning."

Catherine Zeta-Jones: "A bolt of lightning … and then the rollercoaster begins."

The fun of Intolerable Crueltyis watching Miles unravel. It's the classic story of the soft-headed man and the hard-hearted woman. Miles wins the first skirmish in court, but only succeeds in making Marylin as mad as hell. He's met his match and Catherine Zeta-Jones fits the role perfectly.

George ClooneyGeorge Clooney: "She's stunning. She lights up a room, she can be one of the boys and hang out with everybody. She had a baby not that long ago and she's doing it all. She's doing motherhood and she's really one of those actresses you love to work with. I just adore her."

There are traditional or classic elements to Intolerable Cruelty, but as they do with all their films, the Coens put their own peculiar twist on it. They rarely repeat themselves, every film is different. But it all adds up to a world view of human beings as both wonderful and ridiculous. Miles Massey is another unique Coen brothers creation.

Catherine Zeta-Jones (addressing George Clooney): "I think a lot of people are going to love you the way they loved Michael [Douglas] as Gordon Gekko. A lot of people come up to Michael and go, you changed my life, man! You're the best, man! So maybe you'll have the lawyer version. It's a horrific thought! Yeah! Capitalism rocks!" (They laugh)

Catherine Zeta-JonesThe Coen brothers are legends in their own time — extraordinary for working together the way they do, almost like two parts of a single brain, but also for achieving an amazing level of independence without making any concessions to commercial pressure. You have to be on their wavelength to enjoy their films, but Intolerable Crueltyis one of the most accessible Coen brothers films ever. It pokes fun at the whole Hollywood package of material success, but it uses the undeniable assets of two genuine stars to do it.

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