The Coen Project Part 10: Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers movie that isn’t entirely a Coen Brothers movie — it’s based on a concept by John Romano, which was adapted into a screenplay by the writing team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Joel and Ethan were brought in to do a re-write pass on the script, their first gig as writers-for-hire. After the project had bounced around in development for years with a handful of directors (including Ron Howard) attached to it, the Coens were given the opportunity to take it to production. With their ambitious planned adaptation of the World War II novel To the White Sea recently cancelled due to budgeting issues, they jumped on Intolerable Cruelty, a chance to put their spin on a forties-style screwball romantic comedy. And if you’re going to make a screwball comedy, you’d be insane not to cast George Clooney.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, an ace Los Angeles divorce attorney and author of the Massey pre-nup, the most financially iron-clad contract in the game. Get a Massey pre-nup, and you can be assured that both parties are in the union for love only. Miles takes the case of the wealthy Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), whose wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has finally caught him cheating and intends to “nail his ass” in the divorce proceedings. Turns out divorcing rich and stupid men is basically Marylin’s job, and Miles sets out to expose her serial gold-digging. But of course, things get complicated. In the course of the twists and turns that follow love is declared, murder is attempted, and a Massey prenup gets dramatically ripped apart no less than three times.

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship. The two leads also don’t have the best chemistry — Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular doesn’t contribute any warmth to the pairing. 

Despite the possible miscast of Zeta-Jones, the rest of the players bring their comedic A-game to the script. In a hilarious and probably intentional contrast to his role as the dead silent Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thorton plays another of Marilyn’s dupe husbands, an oil tycoon who won’t shut up. Richard Jenkins is in his  exasperated wheelhouse as Marylin’s outgunned attorney, who has a penchant for yelling “objection!” before thinking through what he’s objecting to. And having only previously known the late Edward Herrmann as the grandpa from Gilmore Girls, it was fun to see him go full-on gross old man as Rexroth. 

Since they didn’t originate the script, It’s impossible to know for certain how much of the dialogue is the Coens’ writing, but nearly all of it bears their unmistakable smart-yet-stupid signature. They clearly had way too much fun with the latitude afforded by the genre, resulting in exchanges such as the following:

Rex Rexroth: Have you sat before her before?

Miles Massey: No. No, the judge sits first. Then we sit.

Rex Rexroth: Well, have you sat after her before?

Wrigley: Sat after her before? You mean, have we argued before her before?

Miles Massey: The judge sits in judgment. The counsel argues before the judge.

Rex Rexroth: So, have you argued before her before?

Wrigley: Before her before, or before she sat before?

I’m willing to guess that the Coens also added much of the funny physical business that adds to the characters, most notably Miles Massey’s habit of whitening his teeth at every opportunity. It’s impressive how completely they were able to make the film their own, despite it not being their original story. Intolerable Cruelty fits into the Coen-verse seamlessly.

In the climactic scene, Miles throws away his script during the keynote address at a Las Vegas divorce law conference and instead launches into a heartfelt speech about the value of love and the poison of cynicism:

“Now I am of course aware that these remarks will be received here with cynicism – cynicism; that cloak that advertises our indifference and hides all human feeling. Well I’m here to tell you that that cynicism, which we think protects us in fact destroys – destroys love, destroys our clients and ultimately destroys ourselves.”

My initial read on this monologue was that the Coens were using the character’s words to address the repetitive and unfounded criticism that their work is cynical. But knowing them, it’s probably meant as more of a send-up than a refutation of their critics. And since there isn’t a lot of warmth in this film otherwise (Miles and Marilyn are no Marge and Norm) it’s highly likely that they’re just messing with us. You want sincerity? Oh, here you go.

Stray Observations:

  • Film nerd reference: the movie playing during Rex Rexroth’s bed-bouncing demise is Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, which appropriately is about a murderous railroad engineer.
  • Best grounds for objection: poetry recitation, strangling the witness.

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