Intolerable Cruelty Review
Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a lawyer, a legend in divorce cases. He even has an ironclad matrimonial contract named after him: the “Massey pre-nup”. He’s defending Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), a real-estate developer, against his soon-to-be-ex-wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Despite video footage of Rex’s philandering – he has a penchant for playing trains with scantily-clad young women – Massey thwarts Marylin’s plans for a successful divorce settlement. But he’s reckoned without her plans to get even…
Intolerable Cruelty originated as a rewrite job for the Coens eight years ago. Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone may have a story credit and share the screenplay credit with the brothers, but the result has the Coens’ fingerprints all over it. Throughout their career they’ve taken existing movie genres and added their own spin to them: here it’s the screwball romantic comedy. It’s the battle of the sexes where anything is possible. Clooney, Zeta-Jones and a strong supporting cast sink their teeth into some of the wittiest, most quotable and literate dialogue you’ll have heard in a Hollywood movie in a long time. This shows once again that it is as writers that the Coens really excel: direction and casting and other aspects of filmmaking they also excel at, but it’s a house built on the sturdy foundations of writing-craft. Their confidence with structure shows in the very first scene, a prologue involving an essentially minor character, albeit one played by Geoffrey Rush. (After this scene he only appears twice more, briefly both times, and has no more dialogue.) Even more importantly, every scene is shot through with a dark ironic wit, from the knowing kitsch of the opening credits to Miles’s bogus redemption speech, which would be played straight and very sentimentally in the hands of other filmmakers. Some jokes (like Miles's assistant Wrigley – played by Paul Adelstein – always crying at weddings) get overdone and the plot takes a few convolutions too far towards the end, especially when a contract killer becomes involved, but there’s a gag involving an asthma inhaler that could hardly be better timed.
Clooney certainly has his limitations as an actor, but you have to respect him for his willingness to take on more left-field film projects without going for the big paydays. Miles Massey is a role that fits him as well as the sharp suits he wears throughout. Miles is a first cousin to Everett McGill (his previous role for the Coens, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), with his vanity transferred from his hair to his teeth. I’ve never been an especial fan of Zeta-Jones, but there’s no doubt she’s well-matched with Clooney here, and looks unfailingly stunning. (Kudos to costume designer Mary Zophres here.) The Coens’ regular DP, Roger Deakins, makes everything look appropriately glossy, in a professional but relatively self-effacing piece of work.
Some will no doubt suggest that the Coen Brothers have sold out: this film is made for a Hollywood major and is co-produced by Ron Howard’s regular partner Brian Grazer. Coens Lite it may be, and certainly more accessible than some of their other work, but it’s still a barbed, hugely enjoyable treat.