#45 - Intolerable Cruelty (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Engage the Enemy

“Intolerable Cruelty” is widely considered to be one of the weakest films by the Coen brothers, and while I share that viewpoint I do think that it is a movie that gets nagged on more than it deserves. It is also my opinion that if this was a film directed by anyone else but the Coens it would get a much easier pass. “Intolerable Cruelty” is actually quite a pleasant comedy that poses a surprising level of sophistication.

In many ways this is the Coen’s spin on screwball comedy as the humor is very much in line with screwball classics like “Bringing Up Baby” and “My Man Godfrey” with quick and snappy dialogue and gender tensions - screwball tropes that are repackaged for modern audiences and given that great Coen aesthetic stamp. As it’s the case with all their other films as well, “Intolerable Cruelty” is technically defined first and foremost by its outstanding pacing. It is rarely said (or at least it is not stressed enough) but beyond just being great writers and directors the Coens are also truly amazing editors and that comes through in this film as well since the rather thick and twisty plot is very easy to digest and follow.

And more than any other Coen film “Intolerable Cruelty” is primarily a plot driven piece. Yes the characters are very unique and memorable as is usual for their films, but they are not as complex as in some of their other work. But this is in a lot of ways one of the hallmarks of the genre that they’re toying with here, and the colorful cast and the great leading pair make this an easy burden to bear.

In fact I found it delightful to watch George Clooney swoon over the wickedly fetching Catherine Zeta-Jones, because it is very easy to relate to his buffoonish romanticism since she is in her most attractive outing in this film. And Clooney is his usual charming self, just further confirming that he is indeed the modern incarnation of Cary Grant.

Another thing to note is just the degree to which this film satirizes the American legal system and lawyers in general. Just the levels of absurdity that the Coens milk out of this single aspect of the film is quite amazing, but then again it always was quite a fertile area for comedy.  

The film also holds an odd position in the filmography of the Coen brothers, as before it they made one of their most cryptic and challenging film with “The Man Who Wasn’t There” - a film that is a great artistic accomplishment by any standard. And they then followed it up with “The Ladykillers”, which in many ways is very similar to “Intolerable Cruelty” since it is also an attempt at a more mass appeal movie by the brothers. They did a solid job with both films (and especially with this film), but the quality of their output clearly slumped.

So these two films mark the lowest point in their career so far, but let’s be honest and admit that most professional careers don’t even have high points of this quality. And if these films had to happen for them to make the great films that followed then this dip in quality was very much worth it in my opinion. And actually they do kind of stand as a solid entry point for anyone that is not familiar with the work of these great filmmakers.


George Clooney - Miles
Catherine Zeta-Jones - Marylin
Geofrey Rush - Donovan Donaly
Billy Bob Thornton - Howard D. Doyle
Richard Jenkins - Freddy Bender

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