Intolerable Cruelty (2003) stands as the Coen brothers’ most critically reviled film. It’s hugely underrated, and perhaps with the gift of retrospection others will too with the release of Intolerable Cruelty on Blu-ray. George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a teeth and hair-obsessed divorce lawyer working in Los Angeles. His opposing number is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Marylin Rexroth, a serial gold digger and skilful man-eater. Harking back to the days of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, the two prove a sparky, snappy couple.
Despite this, Zeta-Jones is unfortunately the weakest link in the film, seeming unable to work her mouth around the Coen brothers’ trademark dialogue, but Clooney is more than able to hold up the fort. His performance is fantastic: his smooth, dexterous, completely overworked divorce rhetoric tied to Jeff Goldblum-esque hand jitteriness, and an impressive balance of charm and helplessness. For Coen fans, their comedy tropes are all in place. Fat people, screaming people, ridiculous names and accents, repetitive dialogue and so forth. All of it encapsulates what seems to be the Coens’ recurrent central preoccupation; transgressing the fine line between society and the illusion of order.
Intolerable Cruelty’s characters fight to take control of conversations, but the disorder of this battle for verbal control is what creates the rhythm. One scene with Billy Bob Thornton highlights this particularly well. He talks endlessly while Clooney desperately attempts to jump in, before eventually subduing his enemy. It is this act of bouncing between the two vocal parties which creates balance, and without the chaos and disruption we wouldn’t have the pleasure of reveling in its musicality. The lukewarm critical response may come down to its anachronistic nature, blending classic Hollywood ‘screwball comedy’ with a somewhat modern spin. Perhaps, because of a modern audiences’ lack of recent experience in such films, we react badly to an old language exhumed like this. Let’s hope that this rerelease can change that.