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Intolerable Cruelty (2003)


They cant keep their hands off each others assets.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 100 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

The writer/director team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen seems to have been sent from their strange planet to this earth to bring a message of delirious joy through the medium of film. Their singular vision of bungling criminals, hopeless misfits and doomed romantics, all supported by a grotesque menagerie of secondary characters, has proved to be a winning vehicle for some of the most memorably idiosyncratic movies of the last two decades. An absurdist outlook on life and a keen ear for the nuances of vernacular register have reserved for the Coen brothers a special place, located somewhere between arthouse and mainstream, where their eccentric, intelligent films manage also to be popular.

Their latest film, 'Intolerable Cruelty', bears all the hallmarks of a romance – a dashing hero, a beautiful heroine, a series of trials. Yet here the hero is a successful divorce lawyer, the heroine is a manipulative gold-digger, the trials take place in a courtroom, and instead of a heart-piercing Cupid armed with arrows, there is an 'ass-nailing' private investigator armed with a video camera.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a dental hygiene obsessed matrimonial attorney whose prenuptial contracts are so phenomenally watertight that Harvard law school devotes a whole semester to their study. Yet for all his success, Miles is bored, jaded, and terrified that he will end up like Herb Myerson (Tom Aldredge), a money-counting senior partner in the firm whose only company is his colostomy bag – and so when Miles falls for Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while representing her philandering husband in a divorce settlement trial, he begins to court her through the courts in an adversarial relationship that requires as much skillful negotiating, massaging and finesse as any of his cases. Miles' mind is set on eternal marital bliss, but a wife-seeking Texan oilman (Billy Bob Thornton), a determined lawyer (Richard Jenkins), a soap opera producer with a vendetta (Geoffrey Rush) and an asthmatic hitman (Irwin Keyes) all stand in his way – and Marylin seems worthier as opponent than as wife.

Transplanting all the sensibilities of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy into present day Los Angeles, 'Intolerable Cruelty' hilariously follows love's difficult path in our times of cynicism, greed and excessive litigiousness. Part satire of contemporary marital mores, part lampoon of affluent LA's divorce from reality, it brims with the sort of sharply surreal dialogue and larger-than-life characters that we have come to expect from the Coen brothers. George Clooney (who previously starred in their 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?') proves once again that he is this generation's Cary Grant, combining charm and comic timing with a willingness to play the fool – while Catherine Zeta-Jones bravely riffs off her own media persona as the scheming serial bride after older men's fortunes.

Although the Coen brothers have contributed considerably to its script, 'Intolerable Cruelty' was originally somebody else's story, which may explain why it is not among the best of their projects – but still, even their lesser work is miles better than most other films coming out of Hollywood, and only the Coen brothers could be relied on to take my least favourite genre and make of it something so entertainingly madcap.

See also Gary Panton's review of Intolerable Cruelty

It's Got: A PI (played by Cedric the entertainer) who repeatedly declares Im gonna nail your ass, a gold-digger with a strict one husband at a time rule, rottweilers with a taste for anus Africanus, a waiting-room magazine entitled Living without Intestines, and a public warning about the dangers of carrying a loaded gun and a ventolin inhaler at the same time.

It Needs: To be just a little less conventional.


The Coen brothers are capable of better, but when it takes other Hollywood competition to court, 'Intolerable Cruelty' comes out with the winning verdict. Mainstream enough to get a general audience, quirky enough to keep fans of 'Raising Arizona' and 'The Big Lebowski' smiling.