Netflix Brings Back the Coen Brothers’ Most Underrated Comedy

The Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty is, by my lights, their most underrated film.

It was almost directed by Ron Howard. It was almost directed by Jonathan Demme. Thank the silly gods of Hollywood, it ended up with Joel and Ethan, even though it wasn’t their script.

Originally written by Robert Ramsey and Matt Stone, the film never quite feels like a true Coen Brothers concoction. The comedy takes turns toward the crass  and sophomoric, turns that the brothers have never taken in their own scripts. But the life of this movie is in its dialogue more than its plot, and that is why it’s worth watching — or, better, worth hearing — more than once.

Now that it’s streaming on Netflix, it’s time to revisit George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush, and Cedric the Entertainer for a very good time.

What’s more: The film celebrates the ideals of marriage and integrity through smart satire and a surprising blast of last-act sincerity. It may not have contributed much to my conversation with Matt Zoller Seitz about the theological implications of the Coens’ movies. But it reinforces their unfailing devotion to the ideal of true love, and the ways in which the pursuit of personal happiness can disrupt it.

I remember how, in my original coverage of the film for Christianity Today‘s Film Forum column, some religious-press critics complained that the Coens’ comedy was mocking the covenant of marriage, not the mishandling of marriage. A critic at Movieguide wrote, “Betrayal, broken trust, and infidelities are not laughing matters. …  This movie sadly presents marriage as the biggest joke.” Similarly, Michael Elliott at Movie Parables said, “The institution of marriage takes it on the chin in this film. There is no representation of a solid, happy relationship based on love or faith. Intolerable Cruelty presents a world where alimony rules and the prenuptial agreement is king.”

Well, no, there’s no happy relationship in this film. That’s the problem. Vanity is making satisfaction impossible. Marriage is the bright and shining hope for both of these monsters.

As someone dares to say in this film, “Love need cause us no fear. Love need cause us no shame. … Love is good. … Cynicism, which we think protects us in fact destroys — destroys love.”

Watch it for yourselves. Where does the misery come from in this movie? In what direction must these characters move to find hope, relief, and fulfillment? This is a comedy determined to expose the lunacy of self-interested maneuvering in all things marital, steering us toward fidelity, humility, and selflessness.

So let’s jump back to 2003. Here’s my original, off-the-cuff review with one slight addition: a quote from Michael Atkinson’s original Village Voice review.

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If I’d been watching movies back when Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks were putting out their brilliant screwball comedies, I would have been a big fan. As it is, I am only now discovering the treasure trove of their films.

But I am fortunate enough to be alive in the days of the Coen Brothers, who have yet to put out a film that hasn’t been thoroughly engaging, entertaining, hilarious, thoughtful… in a word, brilliant.

Now, I know there are a lot of you who are not fans of the Coens. There is a troubling undercurrent in their comedy… a dangerous undertow… While their characters are always exaggerated, even cartoonish, with accents blown out of proportion and affectations enlarged to make us laugh or cringe, their stories are resonant with truths we would rather not admit about ourselves and our fellow human beings.

In fact, their tendency to sharply portray human failings rubs many viewers the wrong way. Their critics tend to interpret their discomforting candor and razor-sharp satire as Contempt for Humanity. I disagree. I sense a warmth in their hearts for their characters. It feels like a vigorous playfulness, a love of language, the way they distort accents and develop outrageous turns of phrase. I see it as a way of celebrating our strangeness. And if you look closer, you’ll find that what at first seems cynical really does, in the end, point to love, hope, faith, redemption… affirming all of that good stuff.

Take, for instance, Intolerable Cruelty, their latest screwball comedy. It positively RESOUNDS with a love for smart dialogue… especially the sort that filled Preston Sturges films like Sullivan’s Travels. The characters sound like idiots–many of them are–but the things they say in ignorance reveal a great deal about them. And there is a certain poetry, a rhythm, at times even a verbal slapstick going on.

And nobody delivers Coen Brothers’ dialogue like George Clooney. Who knew, in his days on TV’s E.R., that Clooney had such comedy potential? Here, he makes something memorable out of almost every line, and he moves with an exuberance that commands your attention. Oscar will find this film too light and fluffy, and they will overlook his performance… but it really is award-worthy work. Nobody else could have done what he has done to create Miles Massey, the world’s most talented and cruel divorce lawyer.

The story concerns Massey’s encounter with a villainous temptress, Marylin Rexroth Doyle (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a woman who baits men into marrying her and then, when she has her hands on their assets, promptly dumps them and steals away with vast rewards.

Massey is fascinated by Marilyn’s malevolence, and goes to work with all of the wicked tricks in his book to try and disrupt her marathon of marriages. But along the way, he is smitten with her, and determines that the whole pursuit will culminate when he himself wins her over… permanently.

Of course, she smells blood and begins devising ways to lure Massey in for the kill. Undefeated, Massey has no idea what kind of trouble he’s stumbled into. And when he feels the trap closing around him, he panics, and things turn chaotic.

But then something unexpected happens to both of them. They are brought to a place where they realize that they have achieved all of their dreams. And lo… behold… they are unsatisfied. This is unsettling to them. They suddenly understand that while they have conquered the world, they are alone, their lives are empty, all of their worldly victories worth nothing at all. Could it be that, perhaps, they might learn to humble themselves and try something new… something like real love?

There is a big beating heart in the middle of the Coens’ cheap shots at lawyers and at marriage. (Let me clarify: They’re not mocking the law — they’re mocking lawyers and others who manipulate the law to their own ends. They’re not mocking marriage: They’re mocking those who marry for selfish gain.) As all of the abuses of these institutions lead to emptiness and distress, the Coens slowly reaffirm what we’ve known all along… that the law is there to serve us, not to enable us to do harm; and that marriage is a covenant of trust, fidelity, and selfless love.

The Coens also point in the other direction, showing where self-interested souls end up if they persist in their greed and heartlessness. The film’s most bizarre sequences come when Massey has to visit the head of his law firm. Here the Coens bring back a figure who appears in all of their films: the Man with the Power who Sits Behind a Desk. This time, the Great Manipulator turns out to be more than just a buffoon. He’s more like the devil himself, a snarling and wheezing monster of a man, a wretch hooked up to a jungle of IVs and devices that keep his cold heart beating. Clooney plays his scenes with this beastly old character brilliantly, mirroring our own bewilderment as he recoils in dismay.

There are also several memorable performances, actors reveling in the opportunity to add great characters to the zoo of Coen cuckoos.

Zeta-Jones does her finest screen work here, giving Doyle that luminous movie star quality that you see on the Classics channel but rarely in contemporary films. She is drop-dead gorgeous, convincingly intelligent, and she has surprising chemistry with Clooney. I’d like to see them work together again.

Cedric the Entertainer is my favorite of the supporting goofballs in this flick. He plays Gus Petch, a man with a video camera who works to catch spouses in the midst of their extramarital affairs. His favorite line: “I’m gonna nail your ass!” By the end of the film, he has the audience shouting it right along with him. (How often does THAT happen in a crowded movie theatre?)

Geoffrey Rush and Edward Hermann jump into their roles as crazed divorcees with enthusiasm that almost overextends their comical abilities. Rush actually gets a little out of hand, but I’ll excuse it because he opens the film with a brilliant and immediate joke… a rich man in a fancy car driving along singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”

Billy Bob Thornton, on the other hand, has one of his most subdued roles, getting laughs for being such a thick-headed dupe, a wealthy lamebrain in a cowboy hat. He seems underused here, but he does get at least one quotable quote that has the audience roaring.

But the movie belongs to Clooney. As Michael Atkinson (Village Voice) writes:

Clooney owns the film. Ordinarily best at sardonic, man’s-man confidence, he strides through Intolerable Cruelty with fantastic screwball zest. To see Clooney tenderize, season, grill, and serve this ham hock of a role is to see an old-fashioned virtuoso in perpetual motion. His restless artillery of double-takes, baffled winces, fake smiles, stunned glares, tongue-on-teeth inspections, and zealous line readings might make up the ripest lead perf in a Hollywood film since Cary Grant’s in Arsenic and Old Lace.

And, as usual, the Coens’ preferred cinematographer Roger Deakins captures all of this with dazzling camerawork. He gives screwball comedy better treatment than it has ever received. And he finds some brilliant visual jokes, especially regarding the alarming whiteness of George Clooney’s teeth.

There is a serious flaw in the film that cannot go unmentioned. This is the first film in which the Coens have collaborated with other comedy writers, and at times you can tell that their sophisticated scripting has been diluted by lesser ideas. At times, the film stoops unusually low for laughs. There are several sequences that win the audience’s response by digging into the ditches of comedy, with sophomoric locker-room humor about deviant sex and bodily disorders. It may make the average moviegoer laugh, but it is the kind of comedy that fills bad sitcoms… it’s beneath the Coens to deliver stuff like this. Fortunately, though, those moments are few and far between.

But for the most part, the script is whip-smart. As Massey’s ploy unravels and he loses control of his life, the Coens come closer to the zaniness of their greatest comedy, Raising Arizona, then they have in all of their movies since then. Like The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy, this is an outrageous farce that will get funnier with repeated viewings.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Daniel P Mullen

    Brilliant comedy.


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