Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Intolerable Cruelty

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 7 of 100

It would be easy to dismiss ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ as Coen Brothers lite. A frothy mainstream diversion, oodles better than the misconceived ‘Ladykillers’ remake, but still an exercise in treading water prior to their storming comeback with ‘No Country for Old Men’.

I enjoyed ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ first time I saw it, picked it up for a song on DVD a couple of years ago and I tend to treat it as movie comfort food. Crap day at work? Tired? Feeling a bit low? Need something with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments and George Clooney being smooth; a no-brainer that, by dint of its zingy 1940s screwball-comedy style dialogue and the effervescence of its leads, still manages to evince a bit of class? Look no further.

Bunging it on recently (crap day at work; muscles aching from a frozen shoulder), my wife observed, "Actually, this film’s pretty fucked up when you think about it."

And yes, beneath its day-glo audience-friendly sheen, ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is a slap in the face to love, relationships and the sanctity of marriage. It’s a comedy about infidelity, divorce and deceit, the plot mechanics concerned with the financial ruination of one partner to the betterment of the other.

Clooney’s Miles Massey is a divorce lawyer and the president of the fictitious National Organisation of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationwide (corporate slogan: "let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder …"). He’s bored with his success; bored with the trappings of his wealth. He wants a challenge, a struggle, an adversary. Cynicism is already writ large: our hero is shallower than a politician’s promise of the eve of election; he’s freakin’ lawyer, for Christ’s sake; and his idea of fulfilment is to prove his superiority all over again – moreover, at someone else’s expense.

(Parenthetically, Miles Massey can be reckoned as the first of Clooney’s morally compromised corporate professionals, followed by the title character in ‘Michael Clayton’ ["fixer" for a law firm] and Ryan Bingham in ‘Up in the Air’ [a downsizing specialist]. All are unlikeable by very definition of what they do for a living. Clooney’s old school movie star appeal – he has that suave but slightly self-deprecating Cary Grant thing down pat – goes a hell of a way towards making these characters palatable.)

"At someone else’s expense" is pretty much the defining theme of ‘Intolerable Cruelty’. Miles gains his edge and wins cases by employing the services of private investigation/B&E merchant Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer) in the not-always-legal acquisition of evidence; he also leaves the dirty work of acting upon Petch’s findings to right hand man Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), the risk of disbarment thus becoming Wrigley’s and not his.

Money motivates: Miles’s adversary/romantic foil Marilyn Rexroth is an out-and-out gold-digger who views the investment of a few years in a loveless marriage with an older man chosen for his dupability as a step towards financial independence. It’s as much a testament to Catherine Zeta Jones’s breezy screen persona as it is to Clooney’s smoothness that you’re not put off by the characters. Marilyn takes advice from ersatz mother figure Sarah Sorkin (Julia Duffy), a past master in remunerative divorces notwithstanding that she has ended up alone in a vast and lifeless mansion with "only a peptic ulcer to keep her warm at night".

Miles is also mentored by an older figure: senior partner Herb Meyerson (Tom Aldredge). In a film where the humour is predicated upon non-sequiturs ("Kirschner was in Kentucky!"), buffoonery ("I’m gonna nail yo’ ass!") and the impishly perverse, Herb Meyerson is more in keeping with the half-comic/half-threatening grotesques from earlier entries in the Coens’ filmography, such as the salesmen played by John Goodman in ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘O, Brother Where Art Thou?’ or Jon Polito’s mardy-arse gangster in ‘Miller’s Crossing’. Herb dwells in semi-darkness on the top floor, hooked up to who knows what kind of machines, kept alive – one imagines – purely by his grasping need to generate profits. And when his number one attorney faces financial ruin and the reputation of the firm is under threat, Herb’s reaction is unequivocal: "I’m going to talk to you about the goddamn law. We serve the law. We honour the law. And sometimes, counsellor, we obey the law. This is not one of those times."

Which is how Miles and Wrigley end up in a back-room business meeting with asthmatic and intellectually challenged hitman Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes) …

So: love is a business decision, marriage a quick trip to the Wee Kirk on the Heather (wedding music: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’, arranged for solo bagpipe), divorce a Las Vegas-style pay-out, and if all else fails there’s always Wheezy Joe and a slapstick finale where an impending assassination plays out funnier and a lot more good natured than any of the scenes relating to matters of the wallet heart.

‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is second-rate Coens, but it’s easy to imagine that if Penny Marshall or Nora Ephron had been at the helm it would have been hailed as a slyly subversive comment on rom-com conventions. It’s one of those cases of the director(s) defining the work: by the Coens’ previous standards the cynicism is sunny, the cruelty tolerable.


Evil Dead Junkie said...

I don't like this movie. But reading your review I'll be damned if I can remember why.

Neil Fulwood said...

Probably because the Coens have done so much better.

Also, the humour is uneven, the Forties-style rat-a-tat-tat dialogue devolving into pratfalls and slapstick so clangingly obvious it makes The Three Stooges look like Noel Coward; quirky supporting characters are achingly underused; and none of the darker, more cynical aspects are really explored.

'Intolerable Cruelty' is Coens-lite, but with enough glimpses of their sardonic genius poking through the mainstream veneer to make it more or less worthwhile.

Neil Fulwood said...

My wife adds: "Oh, just put that you've got a man-crush on George Clooney and get it over with."

Consider me outed.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Come on, who doesn't?

Neil Fulwood said...


J.D. said...

Yeah, I dig Clooney as well. Thinking back, he had a great run in the 2000s.

I dunno, I can't really get behind this film and I'm a die-hard Coen bros. fan. As you point out, the humor is uneven and it just doesn't feel like a Coen bros. film.

Troy Olson said...

Fourth-ing the Clooney man-crush.

I actually got a few more chuckles out of this than I did out of BURN AFTER READING. It's not really a better movie, I just happened to laugh out loud more.

Oh, and with my wife being a lawyer, I do ask her if she advises her clients to get a Massey prenup, so at least one aspect of the film has stuck with me.

Neil Fulwood said...

Troy - can you ask your wife if that "Kirschner was in Kentucky" business has meaning, or is it just an alliterative non sequitur?

Troy Olson said...

I asked her -- she said it doesn't ring a bell at all. After some Googling of my own, I'd wager it's just a line the Coens liked the sound of.

Neil Fulwood said...

If that's the case, I'm kind of glad. It's probably the line I find funniest in the whole movie - and I'm damned if I know why! Not having any real meaning preserves the lunatic randomness of it.