Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. USA.  2003.

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The Coen brothersí latest film has been labelled as a major departure from the filmmaking duoís previous output.  Working from someone elseís script for the first time, Intolerable Cruelty has been criticised by some as a sign that the Coen's have sold out and made a big, expensive Hollywood movie.  Interestingly, these critics seem to have forgotten that the Coen's made a big budget movie almost a decade ago with The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), co-produced by Silver Pictures, Joel (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix) Silverís production company.  Although the brothers are often labelled as indie filmmakers who operate outside the Hollywood system, their films usually attract enormous media attention and critical adulation.  However, the question has to be asked: whatís wrong with these filmmakers moving into the popular moviemaking arena?  Surely talented independent filmmakers can only energise mainstream movies, especially romantic comedies.     

Intolerable Cruelty has been marketed as a romantic comedy and I prefer the Coen's when theyíre in full comedic flight.  For me, Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski (1998) are two of the funniest films in recent years.  Their last film, The Man Who Wasnít There (2001), like Fargo (1996), contained comedic elements, but was a serious and gripping journey into the mind of a killer, with its black and white images evoking classic Hollywood film noirs.  Intolerable Cruelty feels like a mix of the serious and the comic, and is not the outright farce that itís being advertised as.  The story involves Miles Massey (George Clooney), a successful divorce attorney whose latest case involves the philandering businessman Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) who has cheated on his beautiful young wife Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Marilyn intends to get as much money from her soon-to-be ex-husband as she can, but she hasnít counted on the skills of Massey, who successfully defends Rex.  Marilyn may be down, but sheís not out, and itís not long before she marries another wealthy businessman, much to the shock of Massey, who has fallen in love with her.   

Although many critics have detected a touch of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges in this film, thereís also some Frank Capra here, and what could cynically be termed as ĎCapra Corní, as the film turns from an acerbic comedy into a genuine love story.  A major turning point is an emotional speech at a Lawyerís convention given by Massey, where he renounces his vocation and preaches love over the opportunism and cynicism of matrimonial law.  Although only the hardest of hearts would disagree with what Massey says, this injection of sentiment seems odd in a movie that started as an out and out comedy.  The fast-paced, broad comedy that is established in the first half of the movie gradually gives way to lighter romantic comedy and more serious concerns, as Massey starts questioning the direction his life has taken.  This is reminiscent of the films of Hawks and Sturges, who often dealt with serious subjects in their comedies.  One example is Sturgesí 1941 classic Sullivanís Travels, where Joel McCrea stars as a pampered comedy movie director who is desperate to make a film about social injustice, but who later becomes a victim of the injustice he sets out to document.  

Along with the assured directorial hands of the Coenís, the performances in Intolerable Cruelty help to ease the transition in tone.  Clooney is pitch perfect as Massey, evoking memories of classic Hollywood leading men from 40s and 50s Hollywood, particularly Cary Grant.  His facial expressions and verbal dexterity are excellent and he commands the screen with the greatest of ease.  Zeta-Jones plays it cool and calm and looks terrific, but in her scenes with Clooney, she has very little of the spikiness of past icons like Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell.  This may disappoint some viewers who may be expecting the sizzling chemistry that Clooney had with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (1998).  

For those looking for some typical Coen touches, thereís a gallery of memorable comic supporting characters, including the appropriately named Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), and the wonderfully eccentric Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), who features in a riotous courtroom scene thatís both the comic highlight of the film, and another example of the escalating comic set-pieces that are so brilliantly done by the Coenís.  This may not be a Coen brotherís classic, but itís still an intelligent, witty tale thatís superbly crafted by all involved and provides a welcome change from the numerous romantic comedies that stick rigidly to generic conventions instead of reinvigorating them.      

Martyn Bamber
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Material Copyright © 2003 Nigel Watson