MOVIES | The Coens’ perfectly tolerable “Intolerable Cruelty”


I can’t believe I’m writing this about a Coen Brothers movie, but watching Intolerable Cruelty is just as enjoyable—and no more or less profound—than lying on the couch and watching a few episodes of Three’s Company. (That may not seem like high praise unless you know that I’m a huge John Ritter fan.)

The 2003 comedy was co-written by the Coens with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone—who you may, but hopefully don’t, remember as co-writers of Tommy Lee Jones’s Man of the House. It’s by far and away the lightest Coen Brothers movie I’ve seen, and I’ve now seen them all except Burn After Reading and A Serious Man. (I’m continuing with my series of Coen reviews, which began preceding their recent career retrospective at the Walker Art Center.) Whatever inspired the Coens to take it easy on this one, it’s a welcome respite after the annoyingly ponderous The Man Who Wasn’t There.

George Clooney plays Miles, a fabulously successful divorce attorney who, in a coup, keeps his client Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) from being fleeced by Mrs. Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) despite amply documented infidelity on Rex’s part. The former Mrs. Rexroth sets out to triumph over another man, who may or may not be her succeeding husband Howard (Billy Bob Thornton).

The film, set in Hollywood, skewers the entertainment industry much more gently and affectionately than does its dark predecessor Barton Fink; the legal profession also takes a few playful punches on the arm. Everyone seems to be having a modest amount of fun, though the movie is stolen by the gleefully immodest Cedric the Entertainer as P.I. Gus Petch. The highflown dialogue spouted by lowlife Petch (“You want tact, call a tactician. You want ass nailed, you come see Gus Petch”) is like the Coens’ watermark on this otherwise uncharacteristic entertainment.

Addendum 1: Watch for a cameo by St. Paul native Mary Pat Gleason as a sassy waitress.

Addendum 2: A key plot point involves a character’s public ingestion of a contract he’s signed after having had it prepared with expert legal guidance. Having recently double-signed and copiously initialed four copies of a contract involving exponentially less money than that at stake in the movie, I wondered whether that would really be adequate to preclude any future enforcement of that contract. Via Twitter, ace attorney and rock photographer Stacy Schwartz echoes my skepticism. Both parties, she believes, would have to agree that ingesting the contract constituted its cancellation. Of course, in the context of the film, it’s probably safe to say that both parties did desire the contract to be cancelled…at least, they did at the time of the ingestion.