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Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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Shucks.

Turns out my sister-in-law, who does PR for Bloomingdale's, works with a local ad agency that screens films before their commercial release. She forwarded me a pass to see tonight's screening of "Intolerable Cruelty," but it looks like I'll have to skip it.

That's the bad news. The good news is that my wife will be able to see it instead. One of us has to stay home with the baby, and because I skipped out on Saturday night for "men's movie night" at a friend's place (we watched "American History X") and will do so again Friday for "war movie night" at another friend's (probably will be "Black Hawk Down," which I've never seen), I did the chivalrous thing and sacrificed my opportunity to see the new Coen brothers movie -- a movie I'm much more interested in than "American History X" (although I thought it was quite good) and "Black Hawk Down." Oh well.

As usual, I'll be living vicariously through the critics on this board, so I eagerly await word on "Intolerable Cruelty." I wonder if Joel and Ethan can pull it off...

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Guest Russell Lucas

I've seen the trailer on television twice, and if I hadn't known beforehand that it was a Coen film, I don't like my odds of having guessed its origins.

That could be a good or bad thing, says Mr. Obvious.

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Responses from critics at the TIFF have been underwhelming, classifying it as one of the Coens' lesser... if not their least... work.

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FWIW, my wife, whose critical tastes run much more to the mainstream than mine, thought "Intolerable Cruelty" was "very funny," and she said the audience seemed to enjoy it greatly.

She asked if I wanted to know the story. I said, "Sure."

She proceeded to give me every last detail, so there won't be any surprises once I get around to "IC."

I'll live.

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Hmmmm. I'm seeing it tonight, but this is worrisome:

The Coen brothers had a golden opportunity to make a darkly humorous, deliciously clever battle of the sexes, and they let it slip through their fingers. Instead, the duo behind such irreverent and perverse comedies as \"Fargo\" and \"Raising Arizona\" settled for a broad farce that is long on manic, cartoonish behavior and short on intelligence and wit. Given the palpable chemistry that exists between stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this proves doubly disappointing.

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I managed to finagle two free tickets for a screening Thursday night, the night before it officially opens here. The problem is that i can't find anyone to go with me, and quite honestly, for a guy with an 8-1/2 month old, i've been out more than enough lately. Usually i'm out to the late shows, so i can at least help with her bath and get her off to bed, so it's not all that bad. But the screening is in Chicago at 7:30, which means i'd have to leave by 6pm in rush hour traffic... And i only get home at 5pm, typically. I'm thinking that my choice to go will depend on what Jeffrey says tomorrow, and whether or not any outstanding company decides they'd like to go with too. Like, if Bono or Sofia Coppola call from out of nowhere and want to go, well then i guess i'm game.

-s.

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Well, you Coen nay-sayers will probably interpret this all again as "contempt for humanity"...

...but I say they've hit a solid triple, if not a home run, with Intolerable Cruelty. For all of the characters' foibles, I felt the same affection for these oddballs and idiots as I always do in Coen films--more that they're just playing with exaggeration for the fun of it than turning up their noses at others. It's their most blatantly old-fashioned comedy yet, giving clear nods to the films of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks with a comedy that plays up the stereotypes of Evil Evil Lawyers and yet serves up a heaping plate of characters I already cherish.

Clooney is fantastic. He's really got the Clark Gable/Cary Grant thing going this time, and yet he's got a zany edge all his own. I never would have dreamed he'd become so successful as a comic actor. And for the first time since Mask of Zorro, I like Catherine Zeta-Jones. Their chemistry is spot-on.

What is it with Clooney... if he's not careful, he'll become known primarily for the magic he works at hushed romantic conversations at fancy restaurants. (First he gets that great scene with J-Lo in the hotel lounge in Out of Sight, and he gets another great one here.)

Geoffrey Rush is hilarious... the opening moment of the film had me laughing.

Cedric the Entertainer joins the ranks of the most fun-lovingly quotable Coen Brothers characters (I refuse to spoil good Coen quotes.)

Billy Bob's character could have been sharper, but he does get one home-run line.

You'll also meet the latest version of their everpresent Man Behind the Desk character... only this time, as if trying to make up for the shiny silliness of the rest of the film, he appears as the most frightening and diabolical figure in Coen Brothers history. He is the Devil as the Head of a Law Firm, a monster of greed and heartlessness.

Best of all is a guy called Wheezy Joe, who shows up near the end. He's only there for a moment or two, but he reminds me of the kind of characters who showed up in films like The Ladykillers or Arsenic and Old Lace , the circus freakshow-types who had personality and heart even if they only had a few lines.

Is it the Coens' most accessible film? Yep. But I don't think there's any problem with that so long as it's well-written, well-acted, and the comedy works. And it works. While this is the first time the Coens have co-written one of their own films (I think)... and while I think at points it is obvious which scenes AREN'T theirs... it only suffers from a few small stumbles. There are good jokes everywhere you look this film. And Roger Deakins gives it far better cinematography than slapstick and screwball comedy ever receives.

I give it a solid B+, and I'm leaning toward A-. I think it's funnier than O Brother Where Art Thou? (I'm sure many of you will disagree, but while I appreciated some of the cast and I loved the soundtrack, much of that film's humor seemed far too easy for me, the whole Cyclops episode fell flat, and I thought it lost momentum at the end.) And Cruelty is much more engaging than The Man Who Wasn't There. It's not on the masterpiece level of Barton Fink, but many of its sequences are the sort that will be funnier in repeated viewings. For 90-some minutes of big laughs, it fits the bill.

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Interestingly enough, my sister thought Clooney and Zeta-Jones did NOT have chemistry. She said Clooney had more chemistry with his legal partner and with "himself".

Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: . . . I say they've hit a solid triple, if not a home run . . .

You must be joking. This is far, far from the Coens' best work; it is very uneven in tone, it imposes drastic changes in Clooney's character for no good reason (why does this character's lust turn into full-blown love at the snap of a finger? why does this lawyer then resort just as suddenly to murder against the one he supposedly loves?), and some of the humour is beginning to feel rote and repetitive (e.g., the overblown handicapped boss brought to mind similar characters in Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski but added little that was new).

: Clooney is fantastic. He's really got the Clark Gable/Cary Grant thing

: going this time, and yet he's got a zany edge all his own.

This much I grant. The scene with the asthma thingy was a bad scene on many levels, but Clooney gave it his all and made it almost bearable.

: Geoffrey Rush is hilarious... the opening moment of the film had me laughing.

Interesting. The opening sequence had me thinking, "This movie is already out of control."

: Billy Bob's character could have been sharper, but he does get one

: home-run line.

I did like his few scenes, yeah.

: Best of all is a guy called Wheezy Joe, who shows up near the end.

Again, you have to be joking.

: While this is the first time the Coens have co-written one of their own

: films (I think) . . .

Yes, I believe they were initially called in to re-write someone else's script.

: I think it's funnier than O Brother Where Art Thou?

I found that film unsatisfying too, but I think I might give it the edge over this one.

: And Cruelty is much more engaging than The Man Who Wasn't There.

There, I think, I would definitely have to disagree.

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why does this character's lust turn into full-blown love at the snap of a finger? why does this lawyer then resort just as suddenly to murder against the one he supposedly loves?

I got from it that these two had never loved anyone, really, before. And they're not even suddenly really in love with each other. What's happening is they're both, at the same time, realizing the emptiness of having climbed Mt. Everest and discovered it is, indeed, NOT the highest mountain or even the most satisfying climb. They're both realizing their own hollowness, their own true longing, and thus, seeing each other in the midst of that realization, they find a sudden kinship that to them would seem like the deepest most profound love of their lives. So no, they're not a great example of love.

As to resorting to murder, waking in the middle of the night, this greedy buffoon who has lied instinctively his whole life... yeah, I can buy that he's dumb enough to hire a dumb assassin in sleepy, crazed, greed-driven desperation. He's not going to be completely transformed at the first sign of love. He's too competitive and crass.

I'm not going to invest heavily myself in defending this movie. I long ago gave up trying to convince folks here why their films ar such treasures, and arguing every point ends up spoiling my ability to put the argument down and just enjoy the movie. I went in expecting a commercial flop that only had hints of the Coens, and instead I got comic acting and dialogue that reminded me of the screwball bliss of The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona. Sure, there are far too many cheap shots... and I'm willing to bet those are due to the collaboration, not the Coens, since they've never been ones to exploit colostomy bags, dog jokes, and elderly sex for laughs.... Sure, it's flawed. Yes, I love it anyway.

And Roger Deakins... some pure genius on display here. That shot of Clooney's teeth through the windshield was brilliant.

P.S. You and I really should start our own Siskel and Ebert show, Peter. We argue and argue, and yet we just keep sitting together. biggrin.gif

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More engaging than The Man Who Wasn't There? Okay, you just forfieted your t-shirt.

It is intriguing that you say that, is it because there is a bit more of a realist-noir edge to the film? That genre seems to fit them much better than anything else I have seen them do.

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I said more engaging... not necessarily more artful.

I love The Man Who Wasn't There. I'm waiting for the price to come down because I want to own a copy. And yet, there are sections that feel as close to "dragging" as anything the Coens have done... at least for me. The conclusion feels a bit drawn out. It's a film I feel more detached from, enthralled and amazed and yet still objective. And it's the only Coen film that makes me feel that way. (And yet, I repeat, I LOVE it.) Cruelty reeled me right in and had me laughing start to finish. So I used the word 'engaging' very deliberately.

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I love The Man Who Wasn't There...

(but)..

There are sections that feel as close to "dragging" as anything the Coens have done... at least for me. The conclusion feels a bit drawn out.

That is the first sensible thing anyone here has ever said regarding this film.

-s.

Edited by stef

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That is the first sensible thing anyone here has ever said regarding this film.

Boy we're all a feisty, grouchy bunch this morning.

I think we should ALL sign up for Fear Factor.

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Oh, I would whole-heartedly agree. But it is drawn out like The Stranger, The Castle, The Fall, No Exit or any other classic existentialist fable. They give us time to reflect whether we need it or not.

What I do like about The Man Who Wasn't There though is that those drawn out sections are the most stylized. The last five minutes of that flick are stellar, really drawing on a lot of classic moods and visual themes.

I like how you used the term "engaged" so deliberately. In many of their films they simply "lose" me somewhere in the middle, I am never really swept up in what in the action from start to finish. I wouldn't even say I was in The Man Who Wasn't There.

Okay. You can keep your t-shirt.

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: : . . . why does this character's lust turn into full-blown love at the snap

: : of a finger? why does this lawyer then resort just as suddenly to

: : murder against the one he supposedly loves?

:

: I got from it that these two had never loved anyone, really, before. And

: they're not even suddenly really in love with each other.

Huh?

SPOILERS

I'm thinking of the scene where they suddenly decide to get married on the spur of the moment. Whatever HE might be feeling in that scene, it is very clear, later on, that SHE was playing a con on him -- she said her friend was dead but she wasn't, that sort of thing. And I still think his transformation was way, way, way too sudden, real or not.

: As to resorting to murder, waking in the middle of the night, this greedy

: buffoon who has lied instinctively his whole life... yeah, I can buy that

: he's dumb enough to hire a dumb assassin in sleepy, crazed,

: greed-driven desperation. He's not going to be completely transformed

: at the first sign of love. He's too competitive and crass.

But in order for your argument to work, we would have to see some sign that he was capable of murder BEFORE that first sign of love. And we don't. So what happens there is NOT a case of he-hasn't-completely-transformed-yet but, rather, he-transformed-suddenly-once,-and-now-he's-transforming-suddenly-again. Too many sudden transformations.

: I'm not going to invest heavily myself in defending this movie. I long ago

: gave up trying to convince folks here why their films ar such treasures,

: and arguing every point ends up spoiling my ability to put the argument

: down and just enjoy the movie.

But I actually LIKE the Coen brothers, and that's why this film was such a disappointment. Abandon the nay-sayers if you like, but must you abandon we who are usually yea-sayers, too?

: Sure, there are far too many cheap shots... and I'm willing to bet those

: are due to the collaboration, not the Coens, since they've never been

: ones to exploit colostomy bags, dog jokes, and elderly sex for laughs....

Elderly sex? Perhaps you mean that scene with the girls jumping on the bed, which reminded me of the naked trampoline girl in The Big Lebowski. It did not seem out of character.

: And Roger Deakins... some pure genius on display here. That shot of

: Clooney's teeth through the windshield was brilliant.

No argument there.

: P.S. You and I really should start our own Siskel and Ebert show, Peter.

: We argue and argue, and yet we just keep sitting together. biggrin.gif

Let's write up a proposal!

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Guest Russell Lucas

Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

.

: P.S. You and I really should start our own Siskel and Ebert show, Peter.

: We argue and argue, and yet we just keep sitting together. biggrin.gif

Let's write up a proposal!

No, for maximum disputational potential with Peter, you have to get SDG in on the action as well. Put all three of you together, and you get something resembling a riled-up hydra. Or the Muppets in the balcony, plus one.

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Russell... that cracked me up.

Peter:

Elderly sex?

I'm referring to the old woman in court and her testimony about her husband's, um... inventions...

But I actually LIKE the Coen brothers, and that's why this film was such a disappointment. Abandon the nay-sayers if you like, but must you abandon we who are usually yea-sayers, too?

Fair enough.

So do you give the film a thumbs-down? Or just a much less-enthusiastic thumbs-up?

For all its shortfailings, I still think it is light years beyond the reach of most mainstream romantic comedies...

(Yes, you might be persuading me to downgrade to a B... but not a B-.)

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: I'm referring to the old woman in court and her testimony about her

: husband's, um... inventions...

Ah.

: So do you give the film a thumbs-down? Or just a much less-enthusiastic

: thumbs-up?

I'm afraid I'm a thumbs-down on this one, though I did find Clooney very entertaining. (Does anyone else remember One Fine Day, the romantic comedy he made with Michelle Pfeiffer? I remember the local critic beginning his review with words to the effect of "Acting triumphs over writing..." or something like that, and I definitely agreed -- the film wasn't especially well written, but the stars had both chemistry and charisma, I thought.)

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I think I am totally neutral on this one. I could go either way. I don't think it is fair to quibble about the emotional directions the characters take because the whole script is such camp. This isn't a serious romance, and I think we would have to stretch to call it a romantic comedy. Or even a comedy of manners. The whole twist on the femme fatale image in American cinema was interesting. Here we have a woman who is such a shark, but whom we know really just needs someone to love her. Pretty typical stuff. But then in the end, the Coen's give us precisely what we want. To see her defeated by Clooney. Who cares if they are in love or whatever. He did win.

I should use this film to sharpen my skills in feminist criticism, it certainly begs for it.

Every performance was enjoyable except the crying lawyer, and Rory Gilmour's lecherous grandfather. What a shameful private life he leads.

Honestly, at times the campy humor (especially in the court scene) was to much. The subtle wit which pervades a film like Raising Arizona has been totally discarded for this in your face absurdity which leaves us with very little at the end but a hip soundtrack featuring snappy hits from the 60's and 70's.

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(M)Leary wrote:

: I don't think it is fair to quibble about the emotional directions the

: characters take because the whole script is such camp.

Then it is absurdist, wildly uneven, who-gives-a-f--- camp, and to that, all I can say is, I give a f---. Especially when there are scenes that almost cry out for me to give a f---.

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Honestly, at times the campy humor (especially in the court scene) was to much. The subtle wit which pervades a film like Raising Arizona has been totally discarded for this in your face absurdity which leaves us with very little at the end but a hip soundtrack featuring snappy hits from the 60's and 70's.

I don't know, this film felt more Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy than anything else they've done. Especially in the first scene where the rich man finds his wife sleeping around on him. The chase scene that ensues immediately recollects images of Nicolas Cage tearing down the road, opening up his car door and swiping the pampers.

I also disagree about the campy humor in the court scene. It may have been too much in a film that wants to take itself seriously, but it was perfect here. Compare a comedy like Planes Trains and Automobiles to a comedy like Airplane and you can see that one wants to believe in itself and the other just wants to provide laughs. One needs to get a moral across while the other pokes fun at the moral. I think IC fits perfectly in the second category, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon brought to life -- except, of course, much much more cynical.

Which is why it's hard to say "I liked this film." I may have sat for a few hours and laughed harder than i have in years, but do i connect with any of the characters? No. In fact i detested every single one of them. There's not a likeable character here, and if you were to meet people like this in real life it would leave you depressed at the sunken state of humanity. And the Coens don't seem to want you to connect, which raises the question, "How are we supposed to like this film?"

-s.

Edited by stef

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Yeah we can think whatever we want to about camp humor because it really is just thoughtless amusement to begin with. Like PTC said...

But I don't think this film has the unique structure that films like Raising Arizona or HP have at all. They really left behind what made those films so snappy and original for something much different this time. Listen, the Coens are going to play around with different form like this for the rest of their careers. They don't do one thing, try to catch some interviews with them on IFC or something.

And quite frankly, Wes Anderson already has cornered the market on the sort of humor that the Coen brothers earlier stuff was trying to reach. Many sequences in IC sadly felt like rip-offs of some now-characteristic Wes Anderson shots, most notable them in the elevator standing apart from each other and looking straight ahead as some catchy 70's tune plays.

I can't really think of anything in this film worth defending or arguing about though. It is just bland comedy in which a guy shooting his head off or another guy getting poked in the butt with a statue is funny.

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