Intolerable Cruelty (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2003)


George Clooney (Miles), Catherine Zeta Jones (Marilyn), Geoffrey Rush (Donovan Donaly). Screenplay by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Rating: 12. Running time: 100 minutes.

I’m constantly perplexed as to why as moviegoers we feel obliged to cut the Coen brothers so much slack, but I’m going to happily continue the trend anyway. If anyone else had directed Intolerable Cruelty, it would have been a typically insufferable A-list twist-a-minute rom-com we’d flock to call corny and rush to condemn as opportunistic bullshit. The story here is both absurd and preposterous, and yet the fact we watch aware that the creators of Fargo are holding the reins means we know it’s not that straightforward. If you know their style, you don’t see a bad crime film here. Instead you see an outrageous tongue-in-cheek piss take of bad crime films that’s so self-conscious that you laugh at the jokes which you normally just shake your head at in disappointment.

Clooney stars as a stereotypical, exaggerated bastard lawyer intent on screwing people over through loopholes as badly as possible, and with a bag of new quirky facial expressions he’s ready to wheel out in every scene he pulls the look off perfectly. Catherine Zeta is the sexy sly wife going from one millionaire to another, looking to marry them, divorce them, and take half their estate in the process. As they trade all too clever jibes from opposite sides of a court case, surrounded by the type of quirky, only-in-a-Coen-film characters we’ve grown accustomed to but still giggle at because of all their incredulity, it soon becomes clear we’re headed in only one direction: Clooney and Cath shagging, of course. How did I know? Not because that’s just what happens in films, but because we’re hilariously battered over the head with the ringing sound of bells of romance every time the two come close. I have no idea why this trick is so amusing. It would surely be cheap standing alone, but it must be the cumulative effect of an environment created on screen for pure piss taking that makes it work, and when combined with some ingeniously silly narrative twists, as always, it all pays off too well.

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