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Intolerable Cruelty

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Intolerable Cruelty

from Film Forum, 10/16/03

The Coen Brothers have given us a long list of memorably zany comedies—Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Hudsucker Proxy, to name a few audience favorites. Their latest, Intolerable Cruelty, is a first for them in two ways: It is a romantic comedy, and it is the first time they have made a movie by revising someone else's script.

The result is not quite as successful as their better films. Some of the film's humor seems too lowbrow, too commonplace, too crass. But their famously frenzied comic antics are still in full swing, their clever and convoluted banter is still sharply funny, and their cast exuberantly creates unforgettable characters.

Best of all is George Clooney, who is unexpectedly establishing himself as one of the most talented comedy actors in Hollywood. His performance here as Miles Massey, a slimey and slick divorce lawyer, has critics comparing him to Cary Grant. Clooney makes something special out of every line he delivers. Fortunately for moviegoers, he is paired with an actress with whom he strikes up some surprising sparks. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in a performance here that is sly, subtle, and even more enjoyable than the one that earned her the little golden statue last year.

The story focuses on the nasty lawyer's meddlings in the marital crimes of a famously unfaithful woman. Massey is determined to foil Marilyn Rexroth Doyle's marathon of get-rich-quick divorces, but as he works to interrupt her latest scheme his professionalism crumbles under the force of his own unexpected but undeniable desire to have her for himself. What follows is an uproarious parody of contemporary marriage in Hollywood's materialistic culture. And before it's over, more than one person will have learned lessons the hard way: You can't have true love, or a true marriage for that matter, if the bride and groom are more focused on their egos and their bank accounts than they are upon each other.

Michael Leary's review (The Matthews House Project) describes the Coen Brothers as "merry pranksters. Their scripts intone worlds of their own device, intentioned collections of parodies and overly indulgent intrigues that tend to leave the uninitiated with narrative whiplash. Their films are the amusement park ride of the American art-house scene." He calls the flick "a screwball comedy for the Divorce Court age. Clooney and Zeta-Jones electrify the script with a sort of magic we used to see in Hawks' films. Sometimes clever, sometimes satirical, the film is always entertaining even when it is just plain silly."

"Using the wrecking ball of comedy, the filmmakers demolish the wall of prenup poppycock that has been erected around matrimony and that acts to shackle vows in contractual claptrap," raves David DiCerto (CNS) "And though the offbeat road chosen by the Coens is paved with pitch-black wit, the film makes a strong case that marriage is not a legal agreement but an act of love."

Some religious press critics think the covenant of marriage, not the mishandling of marriage, is what's being mocked. "It is all done for fun and hilarity's sake, and much of it succeeds as comedy," says a critic at Movieguide. And yet that same reviewer concludes, "Betrayal, broken trust, and infidelities are not laughing matters … this movie sadly presents marriage as the biggest joke." Likewise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The institution of marriage takes it on the chin in this film. There is no representation of a solid, happy relationship based on love or faith. Intolerable Cruelty presents a world where alimony rules and the prenuptial agreement is king."

I did not sense any mockery of marriage itself, but rather the many ways people abuse the institution of marriage, defying its fundamental principles by marrying and divorcing for their own gain. By the end of the movie, we have come to see that the only kind of meaningful marriage is the one in which two people have no regard for their possessions or their financial security, but can think only of sharing their lives with the other. My review is at Looking Closer.

Taking the same stance, Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family's Plugged In) says, "The film ultimately elevates marriage by showing that love—true, faithful, marital love—is not only desirable, but can survive the most damaging circumstances given a strong commitment by both parties. Add hilarious performances … [and] a quirky, idiosyncratic script that zings you with laughter one moment and yanks your heartstrings the next, and you've got nothing short of an excellent film." Still, he warns parents that "rating-pushing profanity and frequent sexual antics" make it inappropriate family viewing.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) testifies, "I knew I had surrendered to Intolerable Cruelty's disdainful tone when at an outdoor wedding, a priest strolled up the aisle, acoustic guitar in hand, singing a ridiculous folk song. In one hilarious 10-second shot, the Coen brothers skewer everything false about Hollywood weddings." He goes on to praise Clooney's work and the "spectacular" cinematography of Roger Deakins.

The majority of mainstream critics are impressed, but few argue that this stands alongside the best films of the Coen Brothers.

from Film Forum, 10/23/03

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) calls Intolerable Cruelty "wickedly funny … a rollercoaster ride through the slimy underbelly of the rich and famous' proclivities of marriage and divorce. The two stars give the movie much of its bounce, and they are so engaging that you cannot take your eyes off the screen."