say your piece
OCTOBER 9, 2003
Coens Satirize Divorce Industry in 'Intolerable Cruelty'
By Jeremy Mathews

“Intolerable Cruelty”
Universal Pictures
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
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
Rated PG-13
Opens wide Friday, Oct. 10
(out of four)

George 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 loved one.

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.

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