Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fast and loose with the quickie divorces

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I reconsider movies that I may have supported too strongly on my first viewing. This is their "second trial" of sorts. The series runs on Tuesdays.

A couple weeks ago, I hoped to spark a debate by singing the praises of what's widely considered the worst movie (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) by a very popular director (Wes Anderson). Having failed in that regard, I'm going to try the same approach again with Intolerable Cruelty and the Coen brothers -- although this time, my supportive adjectives are far more muted.

But I didn't know that before watching it again last Friday night. Then again, that's exactly why I'm doing this exercise.

When I first watched Intolerable Cruelty, I didn't get what all the negative fuss was about. Yeah, a couple of the courtroom scenes were a little broad, with defendants choking witnesses and judges saying "I'm going to allow it." But some of our favorite Coen films have been filled with such quirky broadness. To name one example I loved, Raising Arizona; to name another example I didn't love but liked okay, O Brother Where Art Thou?

What I saw in Intolerable Cruelty was the modernization of a classic screwball comedy, starring two of the most beautiful people in Hollywood -- timeless movie stars, as such a movie would have starred back in the 1930s and 1940s. The best screwball comedies -- your Bringing Up Babys, your Adam's Ribs -- involved a great battle between the sexes, and you certainly have one here between elegant gold digger Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and debonair divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney). (I now see Adam's Rib is classified as a "sophisticated comedy" rather than a screwball comedy on the website I write for, but its battle-of-the-sexes courtroom themes make it a relevant film to discuss here, so "I'm going to allow it.")

And all the quirky Coen touches are there. In one great example of this, you see Clooney's brilliantly white teeth two different times -- at a dentist's office, exposed by implements that have drawn back his lips, and shining through the windshield of his car -- before you ever see the rest of his face. It's a great introduction to a character who obsesses over manipulating appearances (and juries) for the benefit of his clients, and by extension, himself. The film also has a really funny opening scene in which Donovan Donnelly (Geoffrey Rush) walks in on his wife having sex with the pool guy, even though they don't have a pool. It's got that delightful Coen zip, and features both a handgun and a daytime emmy award used as weapons, with the latter's pointy tip getting stabbed in Donovan's buttock.

(Donovan Donnelly is also the name my friends gave their son who was born two weeks ago -- when I heard the name, which I already considered memorably alliterative, appear in this movie, I immediately notified them via email and Facebook. Their failure to respond suggests that they didn't find this as funny/interesting as I did -- maybe they are already taking flak for the name.)

What follows is a pretty clever story that involves an escalating game of legal one-upsmanship between Marilyn and Miles -- who can bend this letter of the law to circumvent that prenuptial agreement, and so forth. On the most basic level, it's a clever story with clever players moving their chess pieces, thinking several moves ahead and surprising us with their ability to manipulate each other. This is what I took from the movie the first time.

The second time, I decided that the delectable details of the story were convenient from a narrative perspective but extremely suspect from a legal perspective. When you break it down to its basics, the world of Intolerable Cruelty is one in which the primary factor in divorce settlements is how cleverly one party tricked the other into marrying him/her.

It doesn't start out that way. Miles and Marilyn cross paths because Marilyn has caught (on video) her husband of five years, Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann -- and my how the Coens love their funny names), cheating on her. She "nailed his ass," as she likes to say -- and as the private eye who videos her philandering husband (Cedric the Entertainer) repeats as he's filming. We find out it's a premeditated ploy to take half of his assets, and it certainly sounds legitimately earned in terms of appearances -- Marilyn invested five years in the marriage just for this payday.

But then the movie shifts gears in the interest of having its plot points play out (mostly) in the present tense. See, you lose momentum in a film if you have to have everything occur at five-year intervals.

(Spoilers ahead, for the rest of the piece!)

So before the ink is even dry on her first divorce -- which Miles spoils for her through good legal detective work -- she's introducing Miles to a Texas oil tycoon she's going to marry, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), and insisting on a prenuptial agreement as a way of showing him how much she's marrying for love. This is, of course, a ploy designed to make Doyle think it's his own idea to tear up the prenup. Barely a week later, it seems, their own wedding is getting thrown, followed promptly by Marilyn filing for another divorce.

This turns out not to be exactly what it seems, either, but the problematic idea here is that Marilyn only needs Howard to sign on the dotted line, then she immediately has him over a barrel. Clearly, if a woman married a Texas oil tycoon, then filed for divorce only a couple months later, nearly any jury out there would recognize this as a transparent case of gold digging, and would not find in her favor. Yet the movie treats these realistic obstacles as though they did not exist. Merely entering into the contract of marriage means she can exit it at her leisure, with as much of her ex-husband's assets as she pleases.

We later find out that Billy Bob's character was just a soap opera actor hired to play an oil tycoon, and that Marilyn was never actually married to him. (Or if so, it was just a business relationship and was immediately annulled.) It turns out the entire wedding was a sham to make Miles think that Marilyn has become rich -- so when Miles, who has fallen for Marilyn, gets the idea to marry her, it's again she who is being magnanimous when she tears up the prenup. See, she's the richer party -- or so he thinks. But since she actually isn't rich, she can take half of Miles' money when they divorce. Not only is this an attempt to fulfill her original gold-digging aspirations that Miles foiled, but it's also revenge against Miles for foiling those aspirations. Two birds with one stone.

Again, though, this is highly problematic. Even if a jury wouldn't have sided for Marilyn in her theoretical case against the oil tycoon, the movie tells us that Miles believes the jury would have. And that, just six months later, she could already be swimming in Doyle's wealth. The movie is founded on the idea that Miles is extremely smart and legally savvy, so how could he think both a) that Marilyn already won a huge settlement from Doyle, and b) that she would enter into a hasty Vegas marriage with him, without having other tricks up her sleeve? You're supposed to believe that she's so beautiful and entrancing that Miles has lost his legal bearings, but I'm not really buying it.

But then, even this shouldn't matter, because Marilyn shouldn't have any right to half of Miles' fortunes just a single day after marrying him. No matter what her attorney might tell a jury to paint Miles in a negative light, a single day of marriage wouldn't warrant that kind of settlement, especially in light of the previous revelations about Marilyn's motivations for marrying her first husband -- i.e. gold-digging, pure and simple.

Yet the marriage contract is considered such an iron-clad agreement that it leads to the movie's most misguided passage, in which Miles hires someone to kill Marilyn, who then tries to turn the assassin back on Miles. This is dark quirky Coens rather than light quirky Coens. But this movie should be light quirky Coens all the way through.

I get that you aren't supposed to take a screwball comedy very literally -- there's a winking understanding, I'm sure, that a lot of this stuff exists for the purposes of plot mechanics, and doesn't hold up to the slightest scrutiny, legal or otherwise. And you probably aren't even supposed to take Miles' and Marilyn's attempts to kill each other very seriously.

But let's just say that I saw other people's concerns about Intolerable Cruelty a lot better the second time around.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Intolerable Cruelty: Still tolerable, but a lot more narrative cruelty than I'd remembered. Appropriate that the initial verdict should have been at least partially overturned in a movie about legal wranglings, eh?


Dexter said...

I absolutely LOVE this movie. Maybe I'm biased as I think of the Coens as my favorite (living) directors, but I thought it was a hilarious comedy, and certainly better than the Ladykillers or Hudsucker Proxy (if you search for the least brilliant of the Coens' filmography). But, while I had so much fun that I didn't care any problems it could have, now that you mention them, they're quite a lot. :P

Vancetastic said...


I would have been in complete agreement with you before my second viewing. I still like it, but not as much as previously. I agree with you that it is FAR better than Ladykillers, and I have a personal hatred for Burn After Reading as well. However, I like Hudsucker Proxy a lot better than you do, if only for Jennifer Jason Leigh's hilarious performance.

As such a big Coens fan, you might be interested in weighing in on my Ranking the Coens post from earlier this year. You can find it under my label for "the coen brothers." (If I were better with HTML I would link to it here.)

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

ugh, that film is intolerable.

Dexter said...

I've already read your post about the Coens (and borrowed the concept for my blog too, I hope you'll forgive me :P ), but I'm not contributing my own ranking yet because for some strange reason, I never got to watch "Barton Fink" and "The Man Who Wasn't There". Something else always got in the way. :P I'll drop a comment when I watch them, but to give you a hint, "Miller's Crossing" and "O brother Where Art Thou?" are in my all-time top10. (And through that clue, you can find which one of your friends I am on Flickchart. :P) Oh, and about "Hudsucker Proxy", I like it, but in my book it's one of the brothers' weakest.

PS. How clever is the tagline "Engage the Enemy"? I find it more fascinating every time I think about it. Yes, I love those little details. :)

PS2. Sorry for talking (/writing) so much again...

Vancetastic said...

Miss T - A fair criticism!

Dexter - You never have to apologize for writing too much! All bloggers -- all bloggers I know, anyway -- love comments. The more, the better. It means people are engaging with our work.

I think I've tracked you down on Flickchart. I too had 12 Monkeys in my top 20 until recently.

It's funny, because before you posted this, I was actually marveling over the tagline myself. I've gotten so accustomed to groaning when I see taglines, that it's nice to see one every once in awhile that actually fulfills the clever promise of such a brief summation of the movie's essence.

Anonymous said...

how did you like splendor in the grass, btw?

Vancetastic said...

Ha! That's funny -- I haven't visited your blog in a couple weeks, and looking there now I see that you just saw it too. I should probably lie and say that I saw it on your recommendation, but actually, I just came across it at the library, and it fit into my need to watch three movies from the 1960s during the month of August, as part of the "Decades" series I'm doing on my blog.

I haven't read your take on it yet (except I saw in the last paragraph you described it as a "powerful film"), so I'll just say quickly that I was fairly uninvolved during the opening hour or so, then found it to be a very fascinating take on obsession that went places I wasn't expecting it to go. More when I actually write about it myself in a couple weeks ...

Anonymous said...

you haven't visited my blog in a couple of weeks?! what's wrong with you? ;)