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Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Cast

The Coen Brothers

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The Coens start with nothing but ducks in this movie, and for a long time it looks like they're all in a row. Clooney and Zeta-Jones are both great-looking people, both smart, both able to play comedy, both able to handle the kind of dialogue fondly described in our nation's literate past as witty repartee. Both characters are sharks, but both are human, too, and their mutual sexual attraction is so palpable you could cook with it. Miles is moved with the profound admiration only one slickster can have for another; when Marylin actually inspires Howard to eat the uncrackable Massey Pre-Nup (with barbecue sauce), Miles realizes he is witnessing not just beauty and genius, but a will to challenge his own.

Plots like this have fueled lovely screwball comedies, and "Intolerable Cruelty" is in the genre, but somehow not of it. The Coens sometimes have a way of standing to one side of their work: It's the puppet and they're the ventriloquists. The puppet is sincere, but the puppetmaster is wagging his eyebrows at the audience and asking, can you believe this stuff? Joel and Ethan are bounteously gifted filmmakers, but sometimes you just want them to lay off the irony and climb down here with the groundlings. Their "Fargo" was a movie that loved its characters, and it's one of the best movies I've ever seen.—Roger Ebert

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty

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"Intolerable Cruelty" has a solid farce structure, a bunch of ripe second bananas, and two sinfully attractive stars ready to raise comic hell. So why is a movie with so many genuine laughs and so many good bits only fitfully amusing?

The short answer is that the Coen brothers seem to be incapable of trusting their material. In "Intolerable Cruelty" they've begun with a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (which the Coens also worked on) that has just about everything you'd want in a farce: a juicy premise, escalating complications, eccentric supporting characters, good lines and a taste for the absurd (there's no reason that a Vegas wedding chapel should have a Scottish theme other than that's just the kind of lunacy you'd expect in screwball comedy). . . .

--Charles Taylor in Salon

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty

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But they can't resist "tweaking" it, and while their usual cartoonish air is considerably toned down here, even the slight emphases that they bring to shots or sequences can be fatal to comic timing. At times, in "Intolerable Cruelty," they are the equivalent of actors who think that the way to do comedy is to act funny. But in good screwball farce, the lunacy arises from the situations and the characters and the best thing a director can do is to stay out of the way of both. For much of "Intolerable Cruelty," the camera seems to be in the wrong place. Actors are stranded in long shots when the camera needs to be on them to give the comic moments shape and punch, or the camera is positioned low so that they seem to be looming over us.

--Charles Taylor in Salon

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty

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Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen brothers movie with a non-Coen script, but fans needn't worry. Though writers Matthew Stone and Robert Ramsey are credited alongside Ethan and Joel Coen, the film bears the unmistakable authorial imprint of the men behind The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? A return to ramshackle Coen comedy following the laconic noir of The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty updates the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s for a crasser, more litigious age. George Clooney returns from O Brother to deliver another great comic performance, this time playing a divorce lawyer's divorce lawyer, a legal warrior who has every reason to be cynical about romance and marriage. Though he's achieved godlike status among his peers, Clooney feels a void at the center of his being. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones, a glamorous professional divorcée who first brushes up against Clooney while he's defending her philandering husband (Edward Herrmann) in divorce court. Clooney sees her as the challenge he's been looking for, but she quickly shacks up with hillbilly millionaire Billy Bob Thornton, who makes up for his Man Who Wasn't There silence by playing a dopey chatterbox. . . .

--Nathan Rabin, Onion AV Club

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty

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Clooney's passion for Zeta-Jones is the engine that ostensibly drives Intolerable Cruelty's plot, but his deliciously narcissistic alpha-male is more convincingly in love with himself than with her. Physically, Zeta-Jones is ideally suited for the role, but the calculating chilliness that made her perfect for Chicago works against her here, rendering her far less irresistible than the film needs her to be. Though every inch a movie star, she's too much ice and not enough fire. As usual, the Coens stock the film with richly realized supporting characters, ranging from a hulking, asthmatic hitman to Clooney's zombie-like law partner, whose deathly pallor makes C. Montgomery Burns look vital by comparison. Unfortunately, all of Intolerable Cruelty's great supporting characters are male–the women are mainly gold-diggers, cheats, and shrews. The Coens engineer a funny, entertaining battle of the sexes here, but the preponderance of indelible male characters and less memorable female roles render it something of a mismatch.

--Nathan Rabin, Onion AV Club

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty

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It's ironic that guys considered to be among the greatest filmmakers of their generation produce movies with the emotional resonance of Cosmo. "Intolerable Cruelty" is just such a film. It contains despicable people doing despicable things and no effort whatsoever is made to deviate from a tone meant to resemble the sort of escapist fare one might associate with the 1930s. But hey, everyone looks really good doing it.

--Mr. Cranky

The Coen Brothers

Intolerable Cruelty