Director Deep Dive: Intolerable Cruelty

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

There comes a time in every director’s career where they create something that feels different in all the wrong ways. Whether it’s poor casting, failing to make the material fit their own style or being saddled with a project you never wanted, various factors can lead to a film not clicking compared to previous works. For the Coens, Intolerable Cruelty is their first instance of this phenomenon. While it’s easy to write off the problems as a mismatch of material and style, there are other factors that play a bigger role.

To start, Intolerable Cruelty is the first time the Coens worked on a film that wasn’t their brainchild. Based on a concept from author John Romano, and turned into a screenplay by the duo of Robert Ramsay and Matthew Stone, the brothers only got involved when it was determined the script needed rewrites. From there, the movie fell in and out of the hands of various directors, notably Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme, before finally getting picked up by the Coens. A decision they made after their planned adaptation of To The White Sea fell through.

Envisioned as a modern take on romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, Intolerable Cruelty follows highly successful divorce attorney Myles Massey (George Clooney) who meets his match, both professionally and romantically, in Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Marilyn, who accumulates a number of last names throughout the film, is in search of a man she can easily divorce and collect a fortune. This plan is foiled the first time around by Massey, and Marilyn begins an elaborate revenge scheme that involves making him fall for her. If you’ve watched a rom-com before, you can easily figure out where the story goes next.

The most surprising thing about Cruelty is how much it plays out like a standard romantic comedy. The script is full of the idiosyncratic banter you expect from a Coens’ film and even finds time for some weird side characters like the wizened owner of Miles’ firm. That dive into the peculiar side has always been a part of the brother’s work, but it gets pushed to the margins here. Even a late plot turn involving a hitman feels less like the duo mixing genres and more like a way to beef up a saggy third act. Often, it feels like the movie is at war with itself.

Still, there’s plenty to like about this film. Frequent collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell return and provide their usual quality work. Deakins doesn’t get many moments to show off, but he makes the most of them. He fills the film with golden hues and close shots of our leading couple when romance blooms. It isn’t often that I discuss the score. Burwell always delivers, but in this case, his light, whimsical music provides a comedy of its own. A comedy that is occasionally funnier than what is on screen.

George Clooney returns to the Coens an even bigger star. The success of Ocean’s Eleven catapulting him to the A-list. To his credit, Clooney doesn’t let his off-screen persona dictate the way he plays Miles. He is more put together and definitely better dressed, but there’s a little Everett McGill in this performance too. Catherine Zeta-Jones, already a rom-com veteran at this stage, plays Madeline as both Miles’ love interest and nemesis. The duo ping-pong back and forth, working through their mutual attraction with a game of one-upmanship that drives the film along. The undeniable chemistry between Clooney and Zeta-Jones becomes the movie’s most consistent quality.

True to their nature, the Coens also load the film up with a colorful supporting cast that proves to be more of a mixed bag than usual. Richard Jenkins and Billy Bob Thornton both return from The Man Who Wasn’t There to show off a more comedic side. Jenkins steals every scene he is in as exasperated attorney Freddy Bender, a capable lawyer always unprepared for Miles and his courtroom antics. As oil tycoon Howard D. Doyle, Thornton earns some of the hardest laughs with his verbose speech about the “urge to wedlock.” Geoffrey Rush, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, and Cedric the Entertainer round out the supporting cast with characters who often overstay their welcome. Rush and Cedric anchor the first and final scenes of the movie respectively, but their characters feel like one scene weirdos who don’t need to return. It is especially disappointing for Cedric, who gets the most substantial screen time of any black actor in a Coens’ film to this point.

Ultimately, the most damning criticism of Intolerable Cruelty is that anyone could have directed it. Sure, it might miss some of the weird side characters on the edge of the story and the dialogue would be worse, but the main plot of the film would remain intact. It is missing a lot of the flair that makes a Coen brothers picture uniquely theirs and is worse for it.

With a budget of $60 million, Cruelty is the most expensive movie in the Coens’ entire filmography and also one of the most successful. Buoyed by Clooney and Zeta-Jones, the film made back twice its budget despite a more lukewarm response than usual from critics. The Coens finally proved themselves capable of making mainstream crowd pleasers. So, why does this movie remains one of their least talked about films?

The most simple answer is that it just doesn’t hold up to the more challenging work they did both before and after. The Coens made a niche for themselves as auteurs who colored outside of the genre lines and many fans enjoy them for that very reason. That they never went back to the well of more decidedly mainstream work speaks to their own feelings on this film. It was always going to be hard for them to create a more conventional movie, no matter how many funny speeches they gave Billy Bob.

Next Time: The Coens attempt to remake a black comedy classic with disastrous results in The Ladykillers.

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