Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and
Produced by Ethan Coen and Brian Grazer
Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey
Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Richard Jenkins and
Billy Bob Thornton
Opens wide Friday, Oct. 10
Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones play a divorce lawyer and a
trophy wife in the wacky 'Intolerable Cruelty.'
It’s unclear whether
Hollywood houses more divorce lawyers or trophy wives, but matrimonial
separation has created an industry that gives attorneys work and
ex-wives healthy settlements. The Coen brothers’ “Intolerable
Cruelty” satirizes the divorce industry with the wacky fun
of a classic screwball comedy.
George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones snap clever one-liners among
some physical gags in this at-odds romance, which is the most mainstream
film that Joel and Ethan Coen have made. It’s also their first
film for which they didn’t write the initial screenplay. However,
it still contains the brothers’ trademark dialogue and references
to past cinema.
The plot comes out of the old story of a big shot being taken down
a notch when the possibility of love enters his life. Clooney plays
Miles Massey, a big-shot divorce attorney known for his iron-clad
“Massey pre-nup” agreement. It’s “never
been penetrated,” everyone observes—and the interesting
word usage later pays off in a description of a person who tore
up the agreement.
Massey represents people who didn’t sign his trademark pre-nup,
helping them keep their money or take it away from their former
The opening scene features a cameo with Geoffrey Rush as a soap
opera producer who walks in on his wife’s shoddy cover-up
of an affair with a pool supplier, then has the foresight to photograph
the evidence. Massey then weaves an amusing new version of the story
to the wife, whom he interrupts at every attempt with a correction.
Despite the fun with falsifying trials, Massey finds his work routine
and gets bored. He finally gets interested when a wealthy real-estate
man (Edward Herrmann) says that he doesn’t want to give his
wife, Marylin (Zeta-Jones), anything. Since there’s no evidence
of her doing anything wrong and she hired private investigator Gus
Petch (an amusing Cedric the Entertainer) to, as he would say, nail
the husband’s ass by taping him with a video camera, Massey
accepts the challenge.
The woman, however, piques his interest even more than the case—and
while nothing stops him from his sleazy law-related policy, she
fascinates him. At the same time he’s trying to stop her from
getting her husband’s money, he’s trying to schedule
a dinner date with her for after the divorce has gone through.
Marilyn doesn’t want to lose her money, as she “worked”
for five years in her marriage to get it. She consorts with a group
of like-minded women who marry and break up and then fear that outsiders
will take all their money. Other than the money, it turns out, the
lifestyle is rather dull.
The story proceeds with weddings, all accompanied by various interpretations
of Paul Simon songs, recalling Rush’s character singing “The
Boxer” shortly before walking in on his wife.
The execution of the film creates a certain joy by following through
with all the twists. When most films might end, the story moves
in another unexpected direction.
This makes the romantic arc a bit choppy and the whole third act
is a bit farfetched, but that’s part of the fun. There’s
a nice parody of the inspirational speech, slow clap and all, and
thankfully the film goes further, as the Coens have never been filmmakers
who go for cheap sentimentality.
The Coenesque details include Massey’s obsession with his
teeth (the film opens with a shot of them being whitened in a dental
chair), dramatically lit scenes by cinematographer Roger Deakins
and clever production design. But overall, the film feels more calculated
and mainstream than their previous films. It’s strong entertainment,
but doesn’t stand up to the Coen standard.
As a silly lark, “Intolerable Cruelty” is a creative
look into the cruelness of matrimonial law.