March 13, 2020
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Coen Brothers
Stars: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton

What it's about. A romantic comedy set in the Los Angeles area. George Clooney is a top divorce attorney known for outrageous court settlements favoring his golddigger clients. Clooney has become wealthy himself, and is thus a target for brunette beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones. She plots revenge on Clooney after he demolishes in court her divorce petition against foolish playboy Edward Herrmann.

Zeta-Jones then marries Billy Bob Thornton, a Texan flush with inherited wealth. They promptly divorce, leaving Zeta-Jones flush. Since Zeta-Jones is now richer than Clooney, he feels safe courting her. They marry without a pre-nuptial agreement. All is briefly bliss, until Clooney learns that Thornton was just an actor, which makes Clooney the victim of a long con. Not to worry. The film is a comedy, and love conquers all. Provided that you are sufficiently attractive.

In entertaining supporting roles are cuckold television producer Geoffrey Rush, gotcha cameraman Cedric the Entertainer, loyal lawyer Clooney sidekick Paul Adelstein, eccentric concierge Jonathan Hadary, and would-be hitman Irwin Keyes, dufus pool cleaner Jack Kyle, and merciless sickly elderly grifter lawyer Tom Aldredge.

How others will see it. Intolerable Cruelty had a higher budget than the typical Coen Brothers movie. Presumably, this was due to stiff salaries commanded by the film's leads. In the U.S., the film was not a blockbuster. But the international gross was surprisingly high. Perhaps the "comedy of manners" style plays better in Europe. Indeed, although festival circuit recognition was minimal, the film at least captured a Best Director nomination from the UK Empire Awards.

It is surprising, then, that the user ratings are middling. They are only 6.2 out of 10, and there is no consequential spread across demographics. The 87K user votes is a respectable number, but less than impressive given the leads, and the filmmaker's reputations. After all, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which also starred the Coens and Clooney, has 273K user votes and a much higher user rating.

The user reviews indicate that many viewers found the film's humor inconsistent. "Some hidding hilarity", "from banal to brilliant", "a couple of laugh out loud moments", "only works so well." The conclusion is that there may be something for everyone, but not quite enough for most. But everyone agrees that Catherine Zeta-Jones was very attractive in 2003.

How I felt about it. The gaping wide plot hole of Intolerable Cruelty is that California judges care about acts of infidelity within a marriage. They don't. But that would take much of the fun out of this Luis Buñuel-ish satire of the rich and infamous.

The moral is that people are opportunistic jerks. But although they cannot be relied upon to act unselfishly, they are nonetheless attracted to each other. So, we can't be all bad. If nothing else, we are amusing, at least to disinterested third parties.

These comedies work because the venal instincts of the characters are exaggerated, unconstrained as they would be in real life by norms of civility, guilt, and empathy. That is, nobody stops in their tracks to ponder whether what they are doing is wrong or irresponsible, since such second thoughts are uncinematic.

The irony is that when the characters get what they want, they still aren't happy. Those with wealth are afraid to form intimate relationships that could endanger their fortunes. It's better to be a pool cleaner without assets, since you have nothing to lose should you end up opposed in a courtroom by George Clooney.

One has to admire the Coen Brothers. Year after year, they crank these films out. Some are more successful than others. Some are better than others. Some are more quirky or memorable than others. But, generally, they are good, and that is something that cannot be said about a supermajority of cinematic multiplex fare.

It has to be said that Zeta-Jones, Clooney, and company are all either really good actors, or else they are well directed. Let's be charitable, and give everyone the credit.