To devoted fans of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen–who have produced such wonderful and diverse films as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo–the brothers’ latest film, Intolerable Cruelty, is apt to be something of a disappointment. Featuring mainstream stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film lacks the sardonic edge, the darkly comic tone, and the bizarre plotlines of the Coens’ best work. Nonetheless, Intolerable Cruelty is an entertaining film, a respectable entry in the screwball romantic-comedy genre.
Until now, the Coens’ favorite genre has been film noir, whose narrative motifs and stylistic peculiarities the Coens have played for both chills and laughs. Indeed, they have nearly cornered the market on a relatively new sub-genre, comic noir, effectively turning inside out what is by nature a tragic genre. As Miles Massey, a hugely successful divorce attorney who now finds his life empty, George Clooney is a candidate for a noir anti-hero. And the stunning and increasingly versatile Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the would-be divorcee Marilyn Rexroth, could easily fit the bill of the classic femme fatale rather nicely. But Intolerable Cruelty never has the look or mood of noir.
What Intolerable Cruelty does have is reasonably well written, fast-paced dialogue, good physical humor, and solid comedic performances from Clooney and Zeta-Jones. (Billy Bob Thornton is quite funny in his brief appearance as Howard Doyle, of the famed Texas Doyle oil family, the short-term object of the affections of the hungry-for-rich-husband Marilyn.) Clooney’s Miles is author of the famed Massey pre-nuptial agreement, so air-tight that its slogan is, “Only love is in mind if the Massey is signed.” But he’s tired of all the compromises his litigation work requires. Asserting that “compromise is death,” he craves “the destruction of an opponent’s life.” He finds a worthy opponent in Zeta-Jones’s Marilyn Rexroth, who is seeking a lucrative divorce from her philandering husband, whom Massey represents. As she puts it baldly when discussing her financial expectations from the divorce, “I invested five years of my life.”
The basic plotline is fairly predictable, as it often is in romantic comedies, but it includes enough surprising twists and quirky characters, including a very perplexed hitman, to hold our attention. Among the zany Coen-style character is a guitar-playing priest, the self-proclaimed captain of the good ship “amore veritus,” who encourages newlyweds to take the “leap of faith aboard the ship of love” and walks around during a wedding reception, strumming his guitar, singing, “I wish I was a Kellogg cornflake.”
At the center of the film is Clooney’s Massey, who is torn between two loves. There is his love of victory and of profit. He is haunted by grotesque images of an aged partner, kept alive by machines, calculating and cackling about billable hours. So successful is Massey at his job that he has been a regularly featured speaker, on topics such as the “Disposition of Marital Assets After Murder/Suicide,” at his profession’s annual convention in Vegas. Then there is the irresistible and aloof Marilyn, on whom he increasingly seems willing to risk everything.
The consistently light tone of the film is certainly a departure from previous Coen films. But this is not an entirely eccentric product from the very eccentric Coens. Intolerable Cruelty affirms and celebrates certain basic human instincts, irrepressible instincts for love and family. More basic and more enduring than lust or greed, these instincts are easily obscured by cool, calculative rationality, the sort of rationality on display in the Massey pre-nup. These instincts, usually embodied in characters who can barely articulate them, surface in films as different as Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. As the cowboy narrator in Lebowski observes, these are the instincts by means of which the “human comedy perpetuates itself.”
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.