Intolerable Cruelty is intolerably delightful thanks to Clooney and Zeta-Jones

Oct. 14, 2003, midnight | By John Visclosky | 17 years, 3 months ago

Never have divorce, fatal heart-attacks, peptic ulcers, rabid Doberman pincers or unintentional suicides been more hilarious than in Intolerable Cruelty, the latest offering from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and producing team behind such idiosyncratic fanfare as Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Co-written by both brothers and directed by Joel, Intolerable Cruelty builds on the un-amusing premise of divorce and thrusts its creators from the head of the independent film industry headlong into mainstream Hollywood.

George Clooney (a Coen alum from O Brother, for which he won a Golden Globe) plays Miles Massey, a grossly successful divorce lawyer whose ruthless tenacity in the courtroom has made him a legend to the wealthy divorce clientele. Miles is bored with the world but avoids love, because as he says, love is life, and "life is conflict. Life is struggle."

Miles takes on the case of a rich real-estate investor whose infidelities are exposed in a tape made by a Private Eye (Cedric The Entertainer) hired by the investor's wife, Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When Miles cheats Marilyn out of all of her husband's money with a surprise witness, she does not become angry so much as enamored with this fierce new competitor. Though he embarrasses her in the courtroom, Miles harbors tender feelings for the equally merciless Marilyn, and he begins to romantically pursue her.

And the struggle begins.

Marilyn tricks Miles into believing that she has married and divorced a wealthy Texan oil baron (Billy Bob Thornton). Miles marries Marilyn, but only after signing the "Miles Massey pre-nup," a prenuptial agreement so ironclad that, as Miles brags, it is given its own semester course at Harvard. The pre-nup protects the richer person in a marriage, which Miles believes to be Marilyn (although she secretly has no money). When she rips up the prenuptial agreement, he thinks it a profession of her love and trust for him, when really it allows Marilyn access to Miles' money. You'll have to see for yourself whether or not she divorces Miles and steals his fortune.

Cruelty is a splendid black comedy, made all the more interesting by the engrossing performances of the two leads. Abrasive, witty and equally pathetic, Miles is a perfectly calibrated character. He argues with everyone, never showing a hint of uncertainty, except when he is around Marilyn. Marilyn brings out a shy tenderness in Miles, and when he whispers to her, "You fascinate me," he clearly isn't lying. Clooney brings the perfect mix of bravado and shallowness to the character, and he's a joy to watch, particularly in the scenes where he talks clients through the process of their respective divorces.

Zeta-Jone's Marilyn is a worthy competitor for Miles. Smart, cunning and beautiful, she waltzes through the movie with brazen confidence. Marilyn seems to get all of the best lines, most of which are given in answer to Miles' questions. When he orders her a steak at a restaurant and asks if she is a carnivore, Zeta-Jones slyly replies, "Oh Mr. Massey… You have no idea." Marilyn is as much a man-killer as Velma Kelly from Chicago (a role for which Zeta-Jones won an Oscar), and even the men in the audience cheer for her, simply because, like Miles, they cannot resist her wiles.

While the plot is formulaic and the film builds slowly, Intolerable Cruelty is infused with the same strand of quirky, dark humor that made Lebowski and Fargo hits. Cruelty may not be as good as some of the Coen brother's earlier work, but it's still a lot of fun to watch these talented actors go at each other's throats. Love may be bliss, but divorce stings with a vengeance.

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John Visclosky. John Visclosky is, suffice it to say, "hardly the sharpest intellectual tool in the shed," which is why he has stupidly chosen to here address himself in the third person. He's a mellow sort of guy who enjoys movies and sharing his feelings and innermost … More »

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