View Full Version : A romance without a heart

Chris Knipp
10-14-2003, 01:26 PM
I confess that I found Intolerable Cruelty a bit disappointing.

This was partly because I had the highest possible expectations due to one of those ruinously revealing previews that are so well done the actual movie cannot hope to live up to them. This one, which I had seen and enjoyed repeatedly, chose to highlight all too many of the absolutely most charming and witty moments that the movie has to offer. Would that the whole actual movie were as well edited as the preview -- but alas, not so.

Intolerable Cruelty is certainly quite fun, and wonderful looking, starting with the stars; but it’s too uneven, and bits of it are crass and tasteless. It's like one of Danny De Vito's family-squabble movies without the unifying delight in lighthearted nastiness and the strong sense of family intimacy that those have. In De Vito's family movies, you realize that hate is a sort of warped way of expressing love. In this one, there's little beyond cold calculation (and no sense of family), and the sudden discovery of romantic interest is not even halfheartedly made believable.

What the Coen brothers’ foray into romantic comedy seems to be about is the old theme of cold personal self- interest overcome by Cupid's arrows, which are amply -- too amply – previewed in the cloyingly cutesy Victorian greeting-card style opening credits. To illustrate the self-interest, the movie focuses on women (prime example, Catherine Zeta-Jones) who use marriage as a way to get rich, who have no families, and who dispose of their unfortunate spouses as quickly as possible (which we see Zeta-Jones repeatedly do).

That might be enough of a theme, though how Cupid could find a toehold among these material girls is hard to figure. But there also has to be a man who comes along to make everything change, so the movie is also about a charming and supremely adept divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who is completely amoral and win-oriented till he finds love replacing lust with the most ruthless of women (Ms. Zeta-Jones) – an outcome which, given the extremism of the behavior already illustrated in the movie, is pretty far fetched -- and in addition makes Intolerable Cruelty soft and syrupy at the core.

I don’t know if George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones have that magical chemistry together some profess to see in them, but they’re both so unquestionably charismatic and good looking, and they perform with such spirit and ease in this movie, that they appear perfectly right together. Unfortunately this effect is always momentary, and their conversions seem enormously hasty, particularly at the end. Tearing up the “pre-nup” agreement document becomes a too-often repeated and increasingly inexplicable gesture.

What is lacking is some of the charm and simplicity of the old-fashioned romantic film comedies, and enough reserve about the development of the main characters initially to allow some leeway for their final transformation. These are features that Down with Love also lacked.

Let’s face it: times have changed. Our vision of human behavior and of the devices wicked wives and unscrupulous lawyers resort to is too dark now for this kind of comedy easily to work. And in the Coen brothers’ sheer delight in developing all the genre’s possibilities they get so carried away that the movie is plot-heavy, and the characters in their mean mode are over-developed. What we see here is utter decadence: much as with The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coens have exhibited brilliant technical mastery of an older genre, but there is something essential missing: the heart and spirit of the originals.