Shiny Shelf


Intolerable Cruelty

By Eddie Robson on 25 October 2003

Prevailing critical opinion has declared that ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is a minor Coen brothers film: inevitably a cut above the average Hollywood movie but not quite up to the ‘Barton Fink’/'Fargo’/'Big Lebowski’ standard. I’d like to be able to disagree but, frankly, I’d only be doing so for the sake of it.

What I do take issue with is the idea that Joel and Ethan have compromised their integrity in some way by making a frothy little romantic comedy with some big names playing the lead roles. This is all part of the same snobbish attitude that lauds romantic comedies from the 1940s as genius, yet dismisses contemporary movies made to the same formula as trash. There was the potential for ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ to be a classic piece of cinema, so long as the Coens nailed all aspects of the genre.

Unfortunately they haven’t, since the chemistry between George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones is slightly lacking – although both actors deliver good performances. This perhaps proves once and for all that the one thing that the Coens can’t quite convey on-screen is sexual tension: in ‘Blood Simple’, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ and ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ they made the chilliness of the sexual relationships into a plot point, and this seems to be what they do better.

Other than that, everything is present, correct and well-polished. The Coens are no worse from having worked from somebody else’s plot on this occasion (the script was an old star vehicle that had been floating around Hollywood for years, and which they comprehensively re-wrote): the story is a strong one, powering its narrative with effective twists. It’s also more than funny enough, throwing in absurd humour, cynical humour, farce, embarrassment… as a comedy, it delivers in spades.

It’s true that it doesn’t always feel like a Coens film, but that’s partly because it’s set in the present day – which none of their movies has been for sixteen years. Furthermore, you can still detect their unique worldview in the details (Clooney picks up a magazine in his boss’s office called ‘Living Without Intestines’) and the wrong-headed wordplay of the dialogue (‘If you want tact, go to a tactician’). It’s also unmistakably rooted in Golden Age Hollywood – Clooney has clearly taken his lead from Cary Grant, and the movie satisfyingly ends almost the second that the couple gets together for good.

Perhaps ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is best regarded as an experiment that doesn’t quite come off. It’s a much braver movie than it looks, since the Coens could easily have sunk into repetition by this stage of their careers but here they are, attempting new things – and for that, they should be applauded.


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By Eddie Robson




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