Intolerable Cruelty Review
Caught red-handed having a fling with the pool-cleaning man? Video footage capturing you with your pants down with your dizzy secretary? Mere details to Miles Massey, the divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who specialises in lost and impossible causes. In fact it’s all becoming rather dull and boring for Miles, author of the legendary Massey Pre-Nup, the iron-clad, no loop-hole, pre-marital agreement contract, until he runs into Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while defending, and of course successfully acquitting, her millionaire husband of quite flagrant (and videotaped) infidelity. For Miles, the attraction is instantaneous, for Marilyn – well, she’s intent on pursuing her career as a serial millionaire divorcee…
The idea of the Coen Bros taking their idiosyncratic comedy style to a mainstream movie could very well have ended up pleasing no-one – possibly losing the edge that has gained them a cult following from The Big Lebowski and Fargo and maybe being a bit too eccentric for a mainstream audience. Adapting a screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano, Joel and Ethan Coen successfully manage to imprint their own character onto a very funny film that is a delightful throwback to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, and much less stylised than their previous attempt at the genre with The Hudsucker Proxy.
The key to the film’s success is in the performances of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. There may be no real chemistry between them, but they are both smooth and professional enough actors to convince you that there is. Clooney at times plays it a little too mannered – the dental hygiene obsession may be a way of finding a characteristic to latch onto, much as he did with Everett Ulysees McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? – but it’s not really necessary. The Miles Massey character is already well enough written and Clooney has more than enough charm to pull it off without resorting to mugging. Catherine Zeta-Jones is just as effective, a fabulously cool and ruthless divorcee, yet with a touch of warmth and humanity in there. The secondary characters are less well-written, but do allow for some terrific performances from Cedric the Entertainer as Gus “I’m gonna nail yo' ass” Petch, Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy and a hilarious turn from Billy Bob Thornton as the dumb Texas oil-millionaire Howard D. Doyle.
For Coen Bros fans their trademark humour is there, but you will have to look harder to find it - repeated viewings (always essential with Coen Bros films) will certainly reveal them. My favourite is during Miles Massey’s keynote address to the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide at Las Vegas. After 'National', the 'Nationwide' in the organisation’s name seems a little superfluous, but it allows for the acronym NOMAN that makes for one of the best sight gags in the film – the Divorce Lawyers' slogan, “...Let NOMAN put asunder”. If that’s your type of humour, you’ll love Intolerable Cruelty
The film’s transfer onto DVD is disappointing – the film's bold colour schemes are slightly muted by a washed-out, sepia tone quality that I certainly don’t recall from the theatrical presentation. At times the glaring brightness is hard on the eyes. Compare the image below from the feature presentation (top) rendered free from shadows (and looking a little cropped at the top) with the same scene from the extra features (bottom). It’s disappointing, because otherwise the film is almost entirely without marks or flaws apart from a few moiré shimmers on Miles’ tie and checked jackets.
There is nothing spectacular about the audio track. It’s pretty solid on the front speakers, but it rarely strays beyond that. The first time the rear speakers were used – about half-way through the film – took me surprise, and it isn’t used much after that. The DTS track is completely superfluous for this film – the Dolby Digital 5.1 track would be more than adequate here.
There is nothing terribly substantial in the extra features. A Look at Intolerable Cruelty (11:40) isn’t bad for a studio promo piece, effectively conveying the slapstick nature of the film and giving you some impression of why it works on the screen through interview snippets with all the cast and the Coen Bros themselves. The Wardrobe (5:11) looks at the stylish costumes designed by Coen Bros regular, Mary Zophres, while Outtakes have similar limited rewatch value, showing bloopers divided into sections for Clooney, Zeta-Jones and Adelstein’s ‘Berry Spoon’ takes with a reel of Rex Rexroth’s train footage.
It may never gain the kind of cult following that The Big Lebowski has deservedly garnered, but Hollywood can certainly do with more sharp, witty and funny films of the style of Intolerable Cruelty. The DVD presentation is lacklustre, failing to capture the beauty of the colour and costumes of a sparkling production, but film's humour shines through.