Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

The Coen brothers' latest venture is a rat-a-tat romantic comedy of the Preston Sturges persuasion, at least for its first hour or so.

Intolerable Cruelty

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Adelstein
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-10-10

Unspeakably lovely, Catherine Zeta-Jones makes everything around her superfluous. Beverly Hills mansions, Vegas casinos, palm trees, swimming pools, and Jaguars -- all fall by the wayside when she sashays into frame. When she appears at the top of a grand hotel stairway, swathed in brilliant red, attended by a white poodle on a leash, she captivates. Utterly.

Such ravishment is the premise of Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers' latest venture, a rat-a-tat romantic comedy of the Preston Sturges persuasion, at least for its first hour or so. No matter who comes in contact with the astonishing Marylin Rexroth, he is zapped through the heart (Cupids are a recurring image in this romp), suddenly and completely desperate to possess her. But he is also, inevitably, in for a cold awakening. For Marylin is not only gorgeous, she is also brilliantly calculating. And she takes her job -- serially marrying and divorcing multi-millionaires -- seriously.

Such vocation is founded, of course, on the intricacy and lunacy of marital law, a field Marylin knows very well. Or so she thinks. She meets her legal-minded match in, of all forms, her husband's divorce attorney, the super-slick Miles Massey (George Clooney). Top man at his posh L.A. firm, Miles is renowned for conjuring the impenetrable "Massey pre-nup" -- signing the document betokens the most profound sort of trust, the sort that simply cannot exist in the real world (and without it, as several pre-nuppers exclaim, "You're exposed"). Smart, wealthy, much admired, Miles holds to his credo, that the very institution of marriage is flawed, based as it is on compromise, which means death. He relishes the opposite, of course, as he describes it to his loyal second chair, Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), "The absolute destruction of your opponent: that's life!"

Still, all that winning can get tedious ("You don't choose to become bored, it just happens," no matter how many times you tear down your several homes or rebuild your cabin in Vail), and besides, Miles is worried that someday, all his grand career will eventually lead to disaster. Hooked up to monitors and oxygen tanks and colostomy bags, his cadaverous boss Herb (Tom Aldredge) never leaves his office, muttering incomprehensibly behind his huge desk, reciting the numbers of cases, the record winnings, the years he's been at it. Reappearing a few too many times in the film, Herb shudders and wheezes, looming in the shadows as Miles' nightmare vision of success.

Compared to Herb (or most anyone, for that matter), Marylin looks like heaven. On their first meeting, Miles is stricken. He devises to learn more about her, at dinner, here she warns him, "I eat men like you for breakfast." Ah, his eyebrow arches, "A manhater, huh?" Still, Miles appears oddly moved by her stated motivation, that "This divorce means money, independence, freedom." Gee, he seems to think, she's just like me. But also not, for he proceeds to knock the teeth out of divorce suit, ensuring that she gets nothing, even as she's connived to have her philandering husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) caught on tape by the flashy private eye Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), whose much-repeated motto is, "I'm gonna nail your ass!" (Gus is a crude and wily sort, who spends his downtime watching football and eating chips with the only other black characters in the film, filling halftime with his latest tapes made for wealthy white clients.)

The nailing of asses becomes something of a theme in the film. This might appear to be the flipside of the freedom business, that is, distrust versus trust. At the same time, possession (and its relation to the law, I suppose, that is, possession is 9/10ths) suggests a certain predatory imperative: nailing is about winning, and winning is about stuff. Intolerable Cruelty wants to make fun of the hypocrisies inherent in Hallmarkian true love, celebrate true love, and then make fun again -- it's a complicated, bumpy road, and the film only makes it partway.

Once trumped in the courtroom (a scene that involves the wide-eyed conflagratory madness of a happy-to-divulge-all concierge, one Baron Krauss von Espy [Jonathan Hadary]), Marylin retreats to the pool of her best friend, Sarah Sorkin (Julia Duffy, a pleasure to see again), who confesses that she's unable to cavort with anyone anymore because, having won so many divorce settlements, she now has too much money to be able to trust in romance. (This while she ogles the Fabio-looking gardener, trimming hedges.)

Marylin, for her part, decides to give it another go, perhaps seeking even more "independence." Some months later, she returns to Miles' offices, asking for his help in setting the terms of her wedding to chatty oil tycoon Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), by way of the famous Massey pre-nup. Wounded by what appears to be Marylin's genuine affection for this geek, Miles has a revelation. As cynical and hardhearted as he may be, given his years of observing the marrying and especially the divorcing kind, he is nonetheless compelled to change his ways, lest he end up like Herb. And of course, lest he feel bested by Marylin.

As long as Miles and Marylin are going at it, Intolerable Cruelty maintains an admirably snippy rhythm. The script, written at various stages by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and the Coens, allows for the sorts of sight gags the brothers prefer (a big close-up of Marylin's poodle biting Miles' hand when he asks her to dinner, a wheezy hitman [Irwin Keyes] who carries an inhaler and looms in the frame), but at its best, excels in banter, especially between Miles and Wrigley. They share a lively "Who's on first"-ish exchange, concerning whether they've argued "before a particular judge, before; and another concerning the silver berry spoons Wrigley's bought for Marylin's wedding gift, earning Miles' fierce scorn: "You Pollyanna!"

It's probably not surprising that the movie is funnier and faster when Miles is jabbing at love conventions than when believing in them. His cynicism and distance are key to his appeal, the difference between his observation of Marylin ("I'm fascinated by that creature") and his mushy assumption of intimacy, understanding, and vulnerability. Addressing his fellow divorce lawyers at a Vegas convention, he exhorts them to trust in love, rather than go on being "frightened of this emotion which is the seed of our livelihood." The problem is, in romantic comedies as in life, that livelihood still looks too good to pass up.

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