Movie Review
Intolerable Cruelty
Intolerable Cruelty poster
By Stephen Lucas     Published October 13, 2003
US Release: October 10, 2003

Directed by: Joel Coen Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney , Catherine Zeta-Jones , Geoffrey Rush , Billy Bob Thornton

Running Time: 100 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $35,159,000
An overly silly and unfulfilling film which sadly leads to a disappointing experience.
Some may claim the Joel and Ethan Coen (The Coen Brothers, as they?re known) to be among the top American filmmakers working today, which for the most part wouldn?t be altogether wrong. They?ve made a great impact in the world of filmmaking ? independent filmmaking, more predominately ? and, hey, everybody has an opinion, right?

The pair has always been best known for their earlier work including the likes of both ?Raising Arizona? and ?Barton Fink,? and throughout their career, the Coen brothers have seldom made films that would likely be suitable or pleasing to mainstream audiences.

Because of this fact, the thought of them writing and directing ?Intolerable Cruelty,? a romantic comedy of sorts, starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, seems inane ? and it is. Instead, the inane variable in this situation is the film itself, an overly silly and unfulfilling film which sadly leads to a disappointing experience.

Divorce isn?t something most people find romantic, but ?Intolerable Cruelty? dares to disagree. Clooney stars as Miles Massey, a top-notch marital lawyer in L.A. who defends his clients? cases with persistence and skill ? he?s cutthroat, cunning, and has impeccable teeth. (Bear with me with the teeth; the repetitive jokes about them are intended to be funny when, really, they?re as thin and gawky as many of the film?s other contrivances.)

Miles? famous ?Massie? Nuptial Agreement ? a document, leaving both divorcee parties with the same amount of wealth post-marriage as they had prior to the given relationship ? has never been penetrated in its existence. Like his claim to fame never having been beaten, he himself has never been done so either and remains unmarried.

However, Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) walks into his conference room on the other side of the table, divorcing his client to start shaking things up for Massie. It?s made fully apparent that he has an immediate interest in her ? he admits that she ?fascinates? him, perhaps because he can?t seem to comprehend her long string of financially gutted ex-husbands. Seemingly fearless, he pursues her in an odd mix of tough love ? in the court ? and tenderness, and she nibbles at the bit yet never quite bites.

Through various mishaps and gags ? frequently overly obscure in nature ? that romantic comedies tend to entail, they eventually find each other. I give the Coen Brothers credit for not leaving the story at that, as the story goes on from there. (So, no, I haven?t spoiled the movie!)

Their brand of outlandish, witty humor is evident in the film, but I?m afraid to report that it doesn?t remain consistent throughout the movie. In their 2000 film, ?O Brother, Where Art Thou?,? they were able to incorporate jokes unique to their style. Though I didn?t entirely enjoy the film as much as others did, I felt as though something was accomplished in their use comedy.

?Intolerable Cruelty? is a film in which there are moments of hilarity (most of which packed near the beginning before silliness settles between the cracks) that I laughed at loud at; as a side note, my laughter was in stark contrast to the mostly-silent matinee crowd I was with.

The awkward thing about this is movie is that there are conflicted relationships between us (the audience) and the characters portrayed onscreen. At several points in the movie, it?s unclear as to whether we?re supposed to laugh with or at the characters, sympathize with them, or be upset with them. These are all normal courses of emotion in comedies, but in ?Cruelty,? often there isn?t sufficient reason for us to feel inclined to do so. As I said, the jokes resonated near the beginning of the film, but over time the unevenness of the film penetrated my initial good spirits.

Further along, as the plot thickens (well, more or less, starts to clutter) I got this obvious feeling that characters and plot twists, etc. were getting out-of-line in terms of logic ? silliness ensues midway though the film, leading to a frustrating last act.

Joel and Ethan Coen are known for their strong writing, and even if certain endeavors are unsuccessful as films, their writing usually transcends their final product. In ?Cruelty,? though, they?re not at the top of their game. Despite its flaws here and in other places, the gem of this film is instead its stars. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, two actors whose work I highly admire, may be in a film that somewhat hides their respective performances, but never does it mask their chemistry on camera too much. Though things get wild, the contact between their two characters is unquestionably strong.

Clooney?s performance, somewhat resembling a cross that of Nicholas Cage?s performances in ?Matchstick Men? and ?Adaptation,? borders obsessive-compulsive and suave as any man can ever hope to be (?Oceans Eleven? anyone?), and able to rattle off sweeping poetry to capture the heart of the woman he loves. Clooney?s Miles Massie is a fun character. Though not nearly as interesting as he may have been intended to be, the character is decent as a main character but never really exceeds many boundaries.

To be honest, I appreciate Clooney?s work in more challenging roles such as in last year?s highly overlooked ?Solaris,? a performance of his which I still testify was worthy of award recognition, or even when he starred in the Coen?s ?O Brother,? earning him a Golden Globe. Nevertheless, that doesn?t mean I discredit this film on his resume by any means ? I commend a decent effort on his behalf.

Zeta-Jones, too, succeeds in her role here. As a rich woman in need of more riches, she looks amazing, intoxicating both Clooney?s character and men in the audience, and never misses a beat. She and her co-star may be starring in a Coen Brothers production ? which many believe to be ?challenging? ? but like Clooney, I prefer seeing her work with more substantial material. Hopefully films like ?Chicago? and ?Traffic? will remain fresh in her mind in choosing future projects, as that is where she flourishes ? not in lukewarm films such as this.

?Intolerable Cruelty? may be a fun romp from time to time, and the cast (including lively cameos from both Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush) is enjoyable, yet the movie never quite succeeds. What I expected walking in was a smart, funny, and somewhat quirky romantic comedy. What I had received instead was a mediocre time at the cinema entailing some wit, humor and quirk, but not much.

The fact that Miles? Massie Nuptial Agreement leaves those involved with as much after the divorce as each had beforehand is interesting. Though ?Intolerable Cruelty? is by no means intolerable or cruel, it does, however, violate the Massie Agreement: it leaves its audience with less than they had bargained for after a dismissive, two-hour elopement.
Stephen's Grade: C
Stephen's Overall Grading: 23 graded movies
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'Intolerable Cruelty' Articles
  • Greg's review D+
    October 12, 2003    Never before have I loathed the two main characters of a film as much as I did with these two. -- Greg Ward