Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
October 10, 2017 3:04 AM - Subscribe

Released 15 years ago today, the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty is an old-fashioned screwball comedy set in the present, starring George Clooney as a brilliant divorce lawyer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his greatest challenge.

Critical consensus is that it is entertaining, but one of the Coen brothers' weaker films.

Selected blurbs from Rotten Tomatoes:

"Intolerable Cruelty sends moviegoers back to the '40s, when pretty people said witty things. It's the brothers' brightest, most accessible jape." - Richard Corliss, Time

"So clever, so funny, so suavely entertaining that it comes as a shock to realize that it's not nearly as satisfying as all those qualities would lead you to believe." - Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

"A date movie with brain cells." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

"George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones square off deliciously, but this '30s-style battle of the sexes from the Coen brothers never catches fire." - Charles Taylor, Salon.com

"The Coens' first mainstream romantic comedy is a superb hijacking of an ailing art form -- short, sharp and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious." - Damon Wise, Empire

"Intolerable Cruelty feels exactly like what it is, a Coen brothers film that did not originate from the mind of Joel and Ethan." - Perry Seibert, Allmovie

"A frustratingly sharp misfire that comes close to being hilarious but never quite clicks in its pacing, timing or tone." - Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

"Joel and Ethan are bounteously gifted filmmakers, but sometimes you just want them to lay off the irony and climb down here with the groundlings." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


MILES
So you propose that in spite of demonstrable infidelity on your part, your unoffending wife should be tossed out on her rear.
REX
Is it possible?
MILES
It's a challenge.

MILES [of Rex's wife]
Has she retained counsel?
REX
I don't know... She has Rottweilers.
MILES
Not a good sign.

GUS PETCH
You want tact, call a tactician. You want an ass nailed, you call Gus Petch.

MARILYN
I've invested five good years in my marriage to Rex and I've nailed his ass fair and square. Now I'm going to have it stuffed, mounted, and have my lady friends come over and throw darts at it.

MILES
Attila the Hun. Ivan the Terrible. Henry the Eighth. What do they have in common?
WRIGLEY [thinks]
Middle name?
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I thoroughly enjoyed Intolerable Cruelty, but at no point did I ever feel like I was watching a Coen brothers movie. Which gives it a huge advantage over The Ladykillers, which I hated, and also didn't feel like I was watching a Coen brothers movie.

This is a long way of saying that I'm very glad they returned to form just a few years later.
posted by incomple at 7:02 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


When I get right down to it, I really don't need a lot from my Coen Brothers movies. Ladykillers put me to sleep, but this one I liked quite a bit. I could see this in a double-feature with "Liar Liar."

"Intolerable Cruelty feels exactly like what it is, a Coen brothers film that did not originate from the mind of Joel and Ethan." - Perry Seibert, Allmovie

This seems unnecessarily pointed. According to Wikipedia this was the first script they were ever paid to write? Even though it wasn't theirs originally, I don't think that's really consequential if the only version of the script that anybody was ever paying attention to was theirs. O Brother, Ladykillers, No Country, and True Grit are the only of their movies that can be said they didn't write from scratch, and half of those are remakes. There's nothing in this one that feels any less Coeny.
posted by rhizome at 9:08 AM on October 10


There's nothing in this one that feels any less Coeny.

Eh, I'd say this movie feels pretty "Un-Coeny." Though they work in so many genres that it's hard to really pin down what makes a movie "Coeny" so I definitely think there's a lot of room for debate there.

I'm trying to put my finger on exactly what makes it less "Coeny" and I think it's just not heightened enough. It's got the twisty plot and the twistier dialogue. But it doesn't have the eccentric, over-the-top side characters or the unnecessary but gratifying weirdness, and it doesn't sink into its genre the way Blood Simple, No Country, or Burn After Reading did. A great Coen Bros movie goes so deep into its genre that it heightens and makes hilarious the tropes of that genre in a way that seems really obvious at first but is really nuanced on further viewings.
posted by lunasol at 5:18 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Basically, it felt like the Coen Bros were trying to make a "Hollywood" movie or a more straightforward director was trying to pay homage to the Coen Bros.
posted by lunasol at 5:20 PM on October 10


I'm pretty sure you can't just unilaterally void a pre-nup. In fact, I'm pretty sure that is the entire point of a pre-nup.
posted by ckape at 9:40 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to put my finger on exactly what makes it less "Coeny" and I think it's just not heightened enough. It's got the twisty plot and the twistier dialogue. But it doesn't have the eccentric, over-the-top side characters or the unnecessary but gratifying weirdness,

Oh, I dunno: the Baron? Wheezy Joe? (I love Wheezy Joe.)

and it doesn't sink into its genre the way Blood Simple, No Country, or Burn After Reading did. A great Coen Bros movie goes so deep into its genre that it heightens and makes hilarious the tropes of that genre in a way that seems really obvious at first but is really nuanced on further viewings.

This I agree with. I'd put Lebowski into that category too. Intolerable Cruelty has always felt muddled to me, and this has gotta be a major part of why. Likewise, the flavors of humor at play are so varied and divergent—sophisticated verbal humor, over-the-top Abbott-and-Costello verbal humor, subtle facial-expression humor, slapstick physical gags—that it's almost like when you'd go all the way across the soda dispenser and combine Coke, Dr. Pepper, Orange Crush, and lemonade together.

Basically, it felt like the Coen Bros were trying to make a "Hollywood" movie

For sure, and especially with the TV show coda. That coda felt somehow less Coeny than anything in The Ladykillers.

or a more straightforward director was trying to pay homage to the Coen Bros.

Trying awkwardly, if so; you'd expect more darkness and death from a Coen imitation!
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:23 AM on October 11


The project didn't originate with the Coens — the script is their rewrite of an idea by John Romano and a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. They were brought in as writers for hire, and their revised script kicked around for quite a few years without getting made.

I am not sure why, but the Coen's work for hire stuff always managed to be competent without being Coen-y, like they apply their skills to making a movie without giving a shit about it. Here is their "we were involved but did not direct" filmography:

Crimewave
The Naked Man
Gambit
Unbroken
Bridge of Spies

Some of which is enjoyable weird, none of which would be hailed for genius. Additionally, as I recall (although I cannot find evidence of this), Ladykillers was not originally going to be a film they directed, but was instead meant for someone else, maybe Barry Sonnenfeld. It's like something essentially Coen shuts off when they don't plan to direct their own movies.
posted by maxsparber at 9:40 AM on October 11


Found it:

As with Intolerable Cruelty, it’s worth noting here that the Coens hadn’t intended to make the movie at all. Their friend and former cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, had a deal with Disney to relaunch the classic 1955 Ealing Studios comedy The Ladykillers, and he asked the Coens to write the script.
posted by maxsparber at 11:27 AM on October 11


Okay this movie didn’t work for me at all until I saw a BUNCH of Cary Grant movies and HOLY HELL, THATS WHAT THE MOVIE IS , they even have a small bit on his teeth cleaning fixation.

Everything werid and off about this movie is cause it’s set in modern day. Knock it into 1936 and make it in black and white and it would be a genre classic.
posted by The Whelk at 5:32 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


This is actually one of my favourite movies ever and I don't give two shits if it isn't "Coen-y"...which I disagree with btw. So it's not balls-to-the-wall. It's still obvious you're watching a Coen Bros film. Why get hung up on that?

I enjoy the parable that A) smart people still do really dumb things, and B) the unexpected can undo even the most intricate plans.

And the humour is really underrated. The first time I saw it in the theatre, the scene in the house with Wheezy Joe and the gun had me laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. To Whelk's point, I think just releasing it in black and white would have gotten over what they were trying to do much more effectively.

"Does Elzbieta want some bones?"
posted by dry white toast at 7:16 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


It's got two of the most attractive actors in Hollywood history at peak hotness. Enjoy.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:56 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


The best thing about this movie was the sheer magnitude of Catherine Zeta-Jones's poise. It was jaw-dropping.
posted by orange swan at 8:48 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


Also GAMBIT is fascinating to look at cause it has all the hallmarks* of a Coen Bros’ Script but none of the directorial touches, so it just doesn’t work- it’s like it’s hard to replicate a sensibility cause you could see how it could be funny if staged differently

*seriously if I had to define thier idiosyncratic fixations I’d start with Gambit , it’s a laundry list of thier pet themes and obsessions.
posted by The Whelk at 4:35 PM on October 12


Basically, it felt like the Coen Bros were trying to make a "Hollywood" movie or a more straightforward director was trying to pay homage to the Coen Bros.

I saw a BUNCH of Cary Grant movies and HOLY HELL, THATS WHAT THE MOVIE IS , they even have a small bit on his teeth cleaning fixation.

It's like periodically the two take on a project where they're trying to make an exact duplicate of a particular genre, like they're figuring out how the genre works by building one from scratch, with varying degrees of success. ("Miller's Crossing" = 40's detective noir, "Intolerable Cruelty" = 40's/50's screwball romantic comedy, "Hudsucker Proxy" = Frank Capra feel-good, "The Man Who Wasn't There" = "Double Indemnity"-style noir, "The Ladykillers" = screwball crime comedy.) Then they take whatever they've learned from these attempts and apply it to their more "Coen-y" flicks.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:05 AM on October 13 [3 favorites]


It's got two of the most attractive actors in Hollywood history at peak hotness. Enjoy.

See also: Out of Sight
posted by Sebmojo at 5:02 PM on October 15 [1 favorite]


Someday I will remember to come back to this thread when both my hands are available for typing and I can really tease out everything that needs to be said about Intolerable Cruelty, Coen Bros. filmmaking, enjoying attractive actors just tearing apart pointy, delicious dialog, and how unfair it is to just drop Out of Sight as a casual reference without spinning totally out of control and talking about Soderbergh, Tarantino, and fucking Birdman all in one breath but like I said I'm gimped right now and can't be bothered. tft.
posted by carsonb at 11:14 PM on November 1 [1 favorite]


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