October 23, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

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The latest Coen brothers’ creation, Intolerable Cruelty is the perfect love story for a generation of cynics. Ideal for the shallow and proud (myself included in this category), watching the film is like a two-hour feast for the eyes flavored with attractive lead players, amusing slapstick comedy, and a complete lack of deeper meaning.

Meet Miles Massey (George Clooney), top divorce attorney and the genius behind the impenetrable “Massey Pre-nup.” Aside from a posh lifestyle, years of successful litigation have also left Miles feeling bored, and subsequently harboring a strong desire for “a real challenge.” Enter Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), man-eater and career gold-digger, who just happens to be the wife of Miles’s newest client. A classic “battle of the sexes” scenario ensues between Miles and Marylin, characterized by sexual tension and disturbingly superb dental hygiene. Can two jaded cynics find love in a glitzy, materialistic world? Is that the real reason we’re watching this movie?

A headache will be your only reward should you try to keep up with the twisted plot. Backstabbing, lying, and cheating all have reoccurring roles in Cruelty, but characters manage to execute each despicable action with suave charm. It is this stylistic flourish, which gives the film such an distinct mood. Cruelty is outfitted with a retro glam feel that supplements its chic Beverly Hills setting.

At one point in the movie, Miles refers to Las Vegas as a place where “the normal rules don’t apply.” The same can be said of the movie, itself a romantic comedy that lacks the emotional turmoil so prevalent among its peers. Concerned primarily with presentation and aesthetics, Cruelty is not a film that deals with the classic definition of romance. Romance, here, revolves around manipulation and “playing the game,” an ideology supported by an exaggerated style of storytelling.

It’s hard to believe that the world of the movie actually exists, absurd as it is in its inhabitants and environments. The Coen brothers, however, capitalize on this slightly fantastical framing to create a slick, smooth piece of instant gratification. The comedy here is slapstick and often dependent on timing. The screenplay is flippant and charmingly cruel. Throw in a trumpet-heavy musical score and Cruelty becomes an homage to movies where “total annihilation” of one’s opponent was accomplished through bloodless finesse.

But where would we be without chemistry between the leads? Jones and Clooney do not disappoint. Clooney is devastatingly debonair, channeling Cary Grant. He is light on his feet and supremely expressive, able to encompass a broad spectrum of emotions with subtle facial variances.

A contrast to Clooney’s highly reactive persona, Jones exudes steady command and confidence. She is a classic femme fatale and despite the empty justification of her man-eating ways due to a want for “independence” as provided in the script, Jones is convincing as a career wife whose appetite for cash is only surpassed by the length of her hyphenated last names.

Is this movie worth your time? Detached and at times totally lacking sincerity, the Coens brothers’ new movie is what happens when you try to satirize traditional romantic comedies while still attempting to market your product as … a romantic comedy. If you prefer visual entertainment of the first order, sans the obligatory mental work, then Intolerable Cruelty is just what the doctor ordered.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang