Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty

2003, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Joel Coen. Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Oct. 10, 2003

Forget for a moment the title, which is reminiscent of late-night cablecore, and the above-the-title star wattage. This is a Coen brothers movie. The snappy screwball patter, the cinemacrobatics of cameraman Roger Deakins, the gently satirical poking of Beverly Hills bourgeoisie, the loopy farcical tone – consider this a companion piece to 1998’s The Big Lebowski. There’s even a standout oddball, comparable to John Turturro’s scene-stealing turn as "Jesus": Here, it’s Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), a mincing, malapropian concierge with a Pomeranian lapdog (uncredited) and his own trumpet flourishes in Carter Burwell’s score. Like Lebowski, Cruelty doesn’t have the epic reach of the Coens’ very best work; it doesn’t have the moral gravity of Fargo or Miller’s Crossing, for example, or even the dear heart beating inside Raising Arizona. But it is wonderful for what it is: a delightful, thoroughly satisfying comedy of modern manners. Clooney plays ace divorce attorney Miles Massey – confident, successful, and bored. Enter Marylin Rexroth (Zeta-Jones), a gorgeous professional divorcée who almost, almost takes Massey’s hapless client (Herrmann) to the cleaners. Yet cynical Miles is charmed by his lovely adversary. Can he win her – even after she takes up with a lunatic oil baron (Thornton, obviously enjoying himself) and weds him in a garden ceremony with a singing priest (Colin Linden) and no pre-nup? I’ll say no more about the plot, except that it spins a convoluted web involving a giant poodle, barbecue sauce, Caesar’s Palace, and a breathless hit man named Wheezy Joe. Sounds Coenesque, doesn’t it? That’s not even half of it. The comic details are great fun. But *Cruelty works because it’s an actors’ movie at heart, and Clooney and Zeta-Jones are beautifully matched. You’d never guess the script (originally conceived by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, who are co-credited here) had been rattling around Hollywood for a decade with everyone and her brother attached. Clooney seems at home in the Coens’ wacky milieu, but he’s every bit a leading man just the same – rakishly energetic enough to growl, almost bellow, "You fascinate me!" to his calculating, wicked lady love. There’s genuine, gaga heat in how he pants after Zeta-Jones, who is her usual silkily patrician self. She’s the human equivalent of a Michel Cluizel chocolate bar; you can’t help but imagine her melting in Clooney’s priapic grasp in the goofy, round satin-topped bed at Caesar’s. The lovers’ chemistry lends a welcome carnality to the film, balancing out the filmmakers’ more arch, quixotic tendencies. Who knew the Coens could be so … well … hot?

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Joel Coen Films
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen brothers head West, but it's a bumpy ride

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 16, 2018

Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers celebrate and eviscerate old Hollywood

Marc Savlov, Feb. 5, 2016

More by Marrit Ingman
Wonder Stories
Wonder Stories

July 25, 2008

King Corn
The film’s light hand, appealing style, and simple exposition make it an eminently watchable inquiry into the politics of food, public health, and the reasons why corn has become an ingredient in virtually everything we eat.

Nov. 9, 2007


Intolerable Cruelty, Joel Coen, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle