Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty ★★★★

"Objection! He's strangling the witness!"
"I'll allow it."

A sanitary, straightforward high-gloss surface may be why "Intolerable Cruelty" is so dismissed and lowly rated compared to most other exploits in the Coensverse. Not set in some lavishly studied bygone era, nor like their other contemporary tales that are either cartoonishly stylized ("Raising Arizona", "The Big Lebowski", "The Ladykillers") or artistic-credibility-earning brutal ("Blood Simple", "No Country for Old Men", "Fargo"), this smooth star-sparring romantic comedy takes place right in Beverly Hills and could almost be mistaken for the next Julia Roberts-Richard Gere lovers' farce, which it was in fact going to be during some chapter of its long development. But of course Roberts and Gere would never co-star in a movie like this because it's too clever for their brand. Under the surface here is a layer of pitch-black scorn, if you step out of the shenanigans and think about the rather, well, cruel major plot points. Underneath that layer is one of relief, happiness and success, though, an unusually sunny sense of mercy for this creative team, but like some of the hard turns taken in vintage Capra and Sturges films (namely something like "Unfaithfully Yours"), the pervasive cynicism earns itself a break. For once, the Coens relent and let their typically ruthless, soul-sick, gold-digging anti-heroes ride off into the sunset. Not only shouldn't we begrudge them this one light-hearted concession to Hollywood magic, we should celebrate it as the merriest denouement we'll ever get from these godless pranksters (sorry "Hudsucker" and "Hail Caesar", you're just not quite as happy and sincere as this one in the end).

It's the Coens doing yet another heightened screwball romp a la "O Brother Where Art Thou" but much more tightly plotted with several boisterous twists, and somehow sharing that vibe with a genuinely sexy, elegant caper cool similar to Clooney's "Ocean's 11" and even "Out of Sight". Both modes accentuate Clooney's finest assets as a performer - gracefully gesticulating goofball and crotch-whispering con artist casanova, making this one of the most satisfying and balletic roles of his career, even if most of the latter quality of smoldering refinement gets tasked to Catherine Zeta-Jones, kind of the straight man to his manic puppy. She in turn channels her own then-recent history of incredible blockbuster screen presence - I'm talking about "The Mask of Zorro" - to melt the screen with suave, underplayed note-for-note exactitude, not to mention of course being one of the most beautiful women in movie history right at her peak.

From there on down, everyone else gets to have a lot of fun with their wacky characters, best of all probably Billy Bob Thornton considering what a(n intentionally) polar opposite part he plays after his last Coens ride in "The Man Who Wasn't There". The Coens get to toy with language as usual (an emphasis on silly names), throw in many playful little details (like a bullet hole in a window shaped like a heart, and treating their old pal Bruce Campbell like a Where's Waldo challenge), and in defiance of anyone's expectations, draft a long, inspiring, heartfelt climactic speech about the power of love that would be a magnificent "you complete me" mic drop moment in a standard rom-com, if it wasn't strategically placed for dramatic irony. Still a damn great monologue, both as written by them and beautifully delivered by Clooney.

Maybe the final outcome of events isn't 100% justified by the script, I'll admit, though there are at least breadcrumbs to foreshadow it. And certainly this isn't super-quirky, thought-provoking or mystical like much of their other deeper and more colorful work, but it does show that zany Coens edge and uses their powers to bring some Golden Age twinkle and wit to the modern rom-com landscape. I still love it.

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