Moment # 5 The Coen brothers always make their films with a smile on their face and a knowing nod in the direction of Hollywood’s history and genre conventions, and Intolerable Cruelty is no exception. It is a modern version of a screwball comedy, as I realised watching the smartly plotted final act, which I’m not going to spoil for you here.
George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a divorce lawyer at the top of his game (the creator of the best and most ironclad pre-nup agreement in the business, and the President, we later discover, of his industry body, N.O.M.A.N)1 while Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marylin Rexroth, a woman who is trying to divorce her way to enough money to be financially independent. Both characters are compelling, though neither is particularly likeable. When he says to her over dinner, “I assume you’re a carnivore”, she laughs and replies, “Oh, Mr Massey, you have no idea.”
In another age this might have paired Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, or maybe Claudette Colbert. And I think they would have made more of Marylin’s background: given the spelling of the name, we can probably assume she started out on the wrong side of the tracks.
Arguably the film’s a little too knowing for its own good (Roger Ebert wanted the Coens to lay off the ironical detachment and just enjoy what they had created). But there is much to like, including the way they love their minor characters, including, for example, Zeta-Jones’ second husband, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and –mild spoiler– the reverend who marries the pair of them at midnight in Las Vegas. “Love your minor characters” happens to be one of Robert McKee’s screenwriting rules.
So the moment is about minor characters. It is the only time in the film, a film about law and lawyers, when we see Clooney on his feet in a courtroom. Zeta-Jones’ case is going well until he calls Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, the concierge at an exclusive Alpine resort, who arrives in court with his dog. You can see it here:
1. National Organization of Matrimoney Attorneys, Nationally. The strapline on the screen at their annual conference is, ‘Let N.O.M.A.N put asunder.’↩