Coen Bros: Intolerable Cruelty

THE LITTLE MAN: For the first and (so far) last time, the Coens have chosen to make a movie about a protagonist who is not seeking to improve his station in life. Rather, Miles Massey is a master of the universe, at the peak of his career, loaded with cash (he employs a man to “wax his jet”), loved by his underlings, feared and respected by his peers.

Because Miles has everything, the plot of Intolerable Cruelty must involve him losing everything in the pursuit of — what’s this? — love.

This is, of course, the Coens first and (so far) only romantic comedy, and there are aspects of it that work very well indeed. Miles Massey is a swell creation and George Clooney plays the part in a way that not only recalls Cary Grant, but actually sustains the comparison. A movie star for the ages, this George Clooney fellow is, he’s going places, mark my words.

STRUCTURE: There is a moment 59 minutes into Intolerable Cruelty where the image fades out and a title card comes on saying “SIX MONTHS LATER.” Title cards, especially title cards expressing a significant passage of time, are a very tricky thing in cinematic language. They signal a definite act break, a re-setting of the stage, so to speak. To have one show up 59 minutes into a 100-minute movie is a very odd place indeed. It was bugging me no end for years until I mapped out the structure of the movie and it finally fell into place.

Intolerable Cruelty, in spite of being an average-length feature, has five distinct acts — an anomaly in the Coen oeuvre. Act I is a brief 15 minutes long and tells the story of Donovan Donnelly (Geoffrey Rush) and his divorce from his wife Bonnie at the hands of Miles Massey. We find out about Miles’s lawyerly brilliance and also about his dissolution and unhappiness.

At minute 15, Act II begins and we meet Rex Rexroth. Rex gets caught in a sting by private investigator Gus Petch, which leads us to Rex’s wife Marylin, who set up the sting and intends to take Rex for everything he’s got. From 15:00 to 41:00 we see Marylin’s plot against Rex be dashed against the rocks of Miles’s legal skills.

Miles is fascinated by Marylin and wants her for himself, but Marilyn shows up with a new husband-to-be, Howard D. Doyle, oil millionaire. Miles first thinks Marylin has fallen in love, but then cheers up when he finds out she’s setting up Doyle to be fleeced just like Rexroth. The unfolding of this scheme constitutes Act III and takes us to minute :59 and that fateful title card.

Act IV takes place in Las Vegas, where Miles is due to give a speech at a divorce-attorney convention, and Marilyn happens to be in town. Marilyn is, to all appearances, wealthy now, wealthier than Miles, and he is still fascinated by her. He gets past her defenses, they fall in love, or seemingly so, and get hastily married. But it turns out Doyle was a soap-opera actor, Marilyn isn’t actually wealthy, and Miles has just lost his fortune to Marilyn, who has now fleeced him as she meant to fleece Rex. Miles is now broke, and broken-hearted. He has sustained a complete reversal of his original situation. His colleagues are ashamed of him and he is an industry joke. This is, normally, what we call the “end of second-act low point.”

Act V begins around 1:20 and everything kind of goes kerblooey. Miles tries to hire a man to kill Marilyn, which doesn’t go the way he planned, and then Marilyn just kind of decides she loves Miles after all and they end up together and happy. This abrupt left-turn into dark physical comedy and forced reconciliation takes us to the end of the movie.

For me, everything in the plot of Intolerable Cruelty works just great right up to the point where Miles decides to hire a guy to kill Marilyn. These scenes don’t ring true to me — I don’t buy that Miles, a brilliant legal mind, couldn’t think of anything smarted than “hiring a guy to kill her” and that, once he does decide to do so, would prosecute the idea so lamely. The always-ahead-of-the-curve Miles Massey becomes the dumber-than-dirt Ulysses Everett McGill in these scenes, as though Marilyn has stolen his brains and expertise as well as his money.

The other overriding problem is, of course, that Marilyn is clearly a cold, calculating monster all the way through to the end of Act IV, and only has a brief scene of regret at the top of Act V to explain the sudden flowering of love within her bosom. If we can see that Marilyn means Miles no good, why can’t he see it? A romantic comedy works because we want to see the two leads end up together, but there’s no reason why we should want Miles to end up with Marilyn — except that she is, in her way, as brilliant as Miles and is thus “a good match” for him.

ONE OTHER THING: There is something about the peripheral characters in Intolerable Cruelty that bugs me, and which is new to the Coens’ movies up to this point: Rex Rexroth and Gus Petch and Herb Myerson and Donovan Donnely and a few others are, of all things, stock characters, types, generic even, and are not given the uncanny specificity of all the other characters in the Coen world.

The script is mostly brilliant on a scene-by-scene basis, but then the Coens try to generate laughs through repetition of key phrases. When everyone in Fargo refers to Carl as “the funny-looking little guy” it’s funny, but Gus Petch bellowing “I’m gonna nail your ass!” is unfunny the first time and is grating by the end of the movie.

MUSIC: The rationale behind the musical choices for Intolerable Cruelty eludes me. Why the emphasis on Simon and Garfunkle and hits from the ’60s? These, again, seemingly generic choices are set against new music from Carter Burwell that sounds, for the first time, to me anyway, ordinary.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Law enforcement personnel in Intolerable Cruelty are lazy, absent tools of high-powered lawyers.

THE MELTING POT: The world of Intolerable Cruelty is less concerned with ethnicity than, I think, any other Coen movie. The lawyers and wealthy folk who make up the bulk of the main characters are all pretty WASPy, but apart from Wrigley’s being appalled at eating at a middle-class diner, the world of Intolerable Cruelty seems largely unconcerned about class — perhaps because the protagonist is ruling-class and thus does not feel class distinctions the way that someone like Hi McDonnaugh or Walter Sobchak does. Miles does not look down upon Gus Petch and treats his employees with respect and dignity (although he does, at one point, refer to his hired assassin as a “dope”). Gus Petch is black, and Donovan is Australian, and Marilyn is played by a Welsh actress, but the parts needn’t have necessarily been cast that way.

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25 Responses to “Coen Bros: Intolerable Cruelty”
  1. curt_holman says:

    “I am just a poor boy…”

    When I saw ‘Intolerable Cruelty,’ I remember laughing out loud at the opening shot — Geoffrey Rush as a rich pampered executive driving in his convertible and singing along to the beginning of “The Boxer” — and barely laughing at all after that.

    I remember laughing at the cover of a magazine that George Clooney was looking at outside the ailing boss’s waiting room, but I can’t remember what it said.

    • Todd says:

      Re: “I am just a poor boy…”

      The magazine is called Living Without Intestines and Miles is first intrigued and then disgusted when he stumbles across the magazine’s centerfold.

  2. pjamesharvey says:

    ‘I’m gonna nail your ass’ wasn’t terribly funny in itself, I admit, but I did find it amusing when we cut from the video he made with him saying that to him in his office whereupon he says something like, ‘Yep, I nailed his ass’. Maybe it’s an obvious line, but I liked it.

    The film fails for me with Massey’s keynote speech, where he manages to turn a whole room of the most devious, heartless divorce lawyers in to sentimental, applauding human beings who care about love. It seems anachronistic to have such a scene in a contemporary film without a lashing of irony. Perhaps I missed the irony.

    Massey’s intentional spit-take is the highlight of the film for me. He obviously sets up the conversation and his taking a sip of water to coincide with his mock outrage, and it is played beautifully.

    • Todd says:

      Clooney plays that scene, and all his scenes, beautifully. That scene and the courtroom scenes are my favorites in the movie and they are marvelous.

  3. rjwhite says:

    The odd thing to me- the Rondo Hatton-esque killer toward the end was the first time it started feeling like something close to a Coen film for me. Then, it was a bit too much, like someone else was hired to make a Coen Bros. film.

  4. I had a copy of the unmade Intolerable Cruelty script sitting on my shelf since ’94 or so, and was stunned when I heard the Coens were actually going to make it – when I got it from a script dealer, I had been told by him (though he wasn’t exactly always right about these things) that it was a quick rewrite job they had done for money and the film was originally going to be made by Andrew Bergman — the writing credits would seem to suggest an original story by one guy, rewritten by another writing team, then rewritten by the Coens. I always thought it would have been an above-average Andrew Bergman picture, but never would have imagined the Coens having any desire to make it themselves.

    I’ve always wondered if they wound up doing it because one day they realized that the perfect actor to play Miles had appeared in the person of Clooney and that they just HAD to see him play the part. Uneven as it is (and it is), Clooney is a joy to watch every moment he’s on the screen.

    The final film is word-for-word, scene-for-scene, identical to the script I had for years, with the exception of everything to do with Clooney’s teeth, and the threading through of the Simon & Garfunkel songs (the opening “Boxer” bit is there, but that’s it). Act V reads a hell of a lot better than it plays – and for some reason, without being any different in plot or dialogue, the ending is more satisfying as the script somehow gives the impression that Miles and Marilyn love (and hate-love) each other because they’re the only people who can really screw (figuratively) each other, and it’s somehow implied their post-film relationship will continue to be a series of backstabbing traps, thrusts, and parrys that will torture and excite both of them. I don’t remember getting that feeling from the film.

    I enjoyed it, but not as a “Coen Brothers” movie – watched it once in the theatre, bought the DVD used, watched it once, realized I had no interest in keeping it, sold it. Went through the exact same pattern with The Ladykillers, though I liked that a lot more. No Country made me a lot happier.

  5. jbacardi says:

    I wound up liking this one a lot more than I thought I would- I think it gets by mostly thanks to Clooney. It does seem like a film that’s constantly at odds with itself, brilliance and banality struggling throughout. I especially liked the animated opening credits montage- that’s some nice work there.

    Went to see No Country for Old Men yesterday, and I’m looking forward to your thoughts about that one.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Astute, as always.

    Where the movie takes the wrong turn you describe is where it adopts two hoary conventions of romantic comedies: Love makes smart men stupid and bad women good. These principles work beautifully in, say, Ball of Fire but are disastrous here.

    As for the Simon & Garfunkle songs, it’s impossible to thread them through a movie without invoking The Graduate — but to what end? I can’t find a conceptual connection between the two films.


  7. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed Intolerable Cruelty as a sort “Coen change of pace”. Rather like I enjoyed Woody Allen’s “Shadows & Fog”. A trifle. There is a great deal of stock conventions (however, the fact the characters don’t make racial or class distinctions is very unconventional & refreshing– perhaps a reference to the universality of love?), but given breaths of new life by inventive minds. As for the music, I thought the choices could be a metaphor regarding the dissolution of the 60’s generation and the current state of their ideals (from where love is derived).

    PS: Thank you for your analysis & structure breakdowns. As a writer, they’re immensely edifying .

  8. Cloony does for teeth in this film what he did for hair coiffure in O Brother Where Art Thou…

  9. teamwak says:

    I love this movie and own it on DVD.

    I love the whole courtroom scene with Heinz, the Baron Klaus Von Esspy and Wheezy Joe lol. And the old laywer plugged into those ventilators 🙂

    • Todd says:

      One of the nice things about Intolerable Cruelty is that, due to its unpopularity here in the US, stacks of it can be found in DVD stores, usually for under $7 (or about 25p to you).

      • teamwak says:

        Such a shame as I think it is a top notch screwball/sex comedy with some hilarious scenes in it.

        But divisive as Intollerable Cruelty is, will anyone be able to defend The Ladykillers? I look forward to your analysis with interest. Possibly just to explain how a Wayans brother made it into a Coens flick! lol