The idea of an “underrated film” is a fairly subjective notion. We all have movies we personally love that many people do not. That’s the beauty of an art form like cinema. When a certain director (or directors, in this case) has a widely praised filmography, there are always the stand-outs which receive the lion’s share of acclaim. With Joel and Ethan Coen, that’s generally Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. And rightly so. They’re all utterly brilliant films, which have the Oscar nominations and reviews to back up their esteem.
One of the Coens more overlooked and somewhat forgotten films has always stuck with me as one of my personal favourites from their impressive career. Intolerable Cruelty is far from their worst reviewed film. Critical reaction was positive, for the most part. But, even with this being their most commercial film to date, the film was a box-office disappointment. Despite starring two of the biggest and most popular actors in the game (including one fresh off an Oscar win), audiences just weren’t interested. The film limped to a tepid $35 million U.S. box-office result, and couldn’t even strike luck with a few consolation Golden Globe nominations during awards season.
Perhaps this explains why it’s been lost amongst the masses of deserved accolades and acclamations for the Coen Brothers’ other works. Sure, Intolerable Cruelty can’t hold a candle to a gritty and confronting masterpiece like No Country for Old Men, but does it really need to? This was their foray into something a little lighter. While on its surface, it’s just another congenial romantic comedy, there’s a deliciously curt blackness to its levity, which you’d expect from a pair of sardonically dark filmmakers like the Coens.
For those uninitiated with this delight or those yet to discover, Intolerable Cruelty tells the tale of Miles Massey (George Clooney), a ruthless divorce attorney and creator of the infamous “Massey Pre-Nup,” a prenuptial agreement so ironclad, it has yet to be broken. When Miles is hired by the foppish philandering “silly man” Rex Rexroth (the late, great Edward Herrmann), he crosses paths with Rexroth’s gold-digging soon-to-be ex-wife, Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The sparks between the two are immediate, and, despite quickly recognising Marylin’s nefarious fortune-seeking intentions, Miles is entirely besotted.
Naturally, this will not be the first time our pair of star-crossed lovers will meet. After a humiliating defeat during the Rexroth divorce, Marilyn is determined to find her fortune at the hands of the next poor sucker, leading her on another collision course with the Massey Pre-Nup and further encounters with the man entirely fascinated by her. But love eludes them both, and the desire to win may well take a backseat to matters of the heart.
Casting is everything in a romance. With Clooney and Zeta-Jones, the Coens find the perfect combination for this ridiculously entertaining battle of the wits. Clooney is the obvious choice for the endlessly charming and suave lawyer. Few can deliver this kind of ultra-smooth character better than Clooney, and he’s equally adept in the courtroom scenes as he is during moments when Miles is courting his newfound infatuation. Zeta-Jones is a knockout, exuding lashings of supreme confidence and self-assurance in every moment Marylin is on-screen. And, not to get terribly superficial, but Zeta-Jones has never looked more stunningly gorgeous either. Their chemistry is downright electric, with sexual tension you could cut with a knife. It’s a perfect match and another example of the Coen Brother’s knack for casting brilliance.
Like most of the Coens’ work, Intolerable Cruelty features a terrific ensemble cast which elevates the film even further. The ever-reliable Richard Jenkins appears as Freddy Bender, Marylin’s beleaguered lawyer who has a long history of losing cases to his arch nemesis Miles. Billy Bob Thornton pops in as Howard D. Doyle, a bombastic Texas oil tycoon who falls under Marylin’s spell. Cedric the Entertainer chews every piece of scenery as private investigator Gus Petch, known for his catchphrase “I’m gon’ nail yo ass!” But the real scene-stealer is the late Irwin Keyes as the endearing hitman Wheezy Joe, whose desperate need for an asthma inhaler leads to one of the film’s biggest surprises.
When you get down to it, neither Miles nor Marylin are particularly “good” people. One is a merciless and slick attorney, hell-bent on victory for his shamefully unscrupulous clients. The other is a selfish opportunist, desperate to snatch a fortune from any rich chump unfortunate enough to fall for her charm and beauty. In another film, either could be a villain, but in this narrative, they’re our protagonists. It’s always a risky move placing two potentially odious characters at the forefront of your film. But this is one of the calling cards of a Coen Brothers film, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Clooney and Zeta-Jones both find the hidden humanity in their characters, making them far more likeable than they have any business being. That in itself makes this film a true triumph.
Watching the pair battle each other and their burgeoning but forbidden affections is a true delight, particularly as Miles begins to realise he’s finally found his equal, in both ambition and intellect. None have ever challenged him quite like Marylin, and that’s a realisation that’s as frustrating as it is exciting for such a usually unopposed personality. Both have hit a wall in their lives. Miles is experiencing a mid-life crisis, taking little pleasure from the work that was once his pride and joy. Marylin wonders if the chase of endless wealth is ultimately worth it, if there’s no one to share it with. They arrive in each other’s lives at just the right time. However, both are naturally reluctant to abandon their former lives and throw caution to the wind for love.
It’s this dichotomy of who we are versus who we want to be that makes Intolerable Cruelty far deeper than it first appears. It’s wrapped up in a whole swag of absurdity and silliness, so that message is easily lost. Not that there’s anything wrong with a hefty dose of the ridiculous. It’s another element of this film’s endless appeal, typified by one particular outlandish courtroom scene involving a Swiss concierge named Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (a gloriously camp Jonathan Hadary), a Pomeranian named Elsbieta, and a deadpan judge with a penchant for the line “I’m going to allow it.”
The screenplay is loaded with the style of razor-sharp wit and acuity the Coens are so well-known for. It’s filled with biting interactions and delicious dialogue, particularly for our co-leads, which they handle with expert timing and execution. A highlight is a dinner scene between Miles and Marylin where, after taking the liberty of audaciously ordering his date’s meal for her, Miles questions: “I assume you’re a carnivore?” to which Marylin dryly replies: “Oh, Mr. Massey. You have no idea.” This may be my favourite exchange of dialogue in any Coen Brothers film. Ever.
Intolerable Cruelty is just so damn delectably fun. It’s irresistible. It’s infectious. It’s a genuine joy to watch. I know there are “better” Coen Brothers films, but none have quite the style and panache displayed here. It’s a film that demands repeat viewership because it’s such a delightful romp. That’s not something you can say for most of their work and why this film firmly stands out. It’s decidedly different to anything else the Coens have delivered. Surely that deserves some admiration. Give it another try and let it win you over.