Home / George Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty: Masters of Irony

George Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty: Masters of Irony

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This fall Bill Murray‘s depressively muted performance in Lost in Translation has caused critics to say he’s outdone himself, though in that movie he scarcely does himself at all. If, on the other hand, you want to see a comic performance based on the theory that more is more, see George Clooney‘s manic turn in the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty. Clooney plays Miles Massey, a Beverly Hills divorce attorney at the top of his game. He’s good in person, both in his office concocting a counterattack for a cheating wife, over her bewildered objections to its untruth, and in court launching such counterattacks so that sure winners going up against him lose. (Miles is wickedly skillful at throwing his adversaries off balance; in one hearing opposing counsel can only feebly object on the grounds of “poetry recitation.”) And he’s good on paper: he’s the author of the Massey Pre-nup, an agreement that has never been “penetrated.” Signing it is widely considered proof that the poorer partner to a marriage is truly in love. Miles is so good, in fact, he’s bored.

He isn’t absolutely armor-plated, however. He has nightmares about being called into the office of the head partner of his firm, a sputtering old man hooked up to an oxygen tank who keeps count of his underling’s accomplishments. Miles processes information and responds so fast that the person he’s talking to barely needs to participate in the conversation and Clooney has the verbal timing people claim went out of existence after the ’40s. But being hotwired is a problem when Miles becomes emotionally involved in a high-profile divorce between Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her philandering real estate magnate husband (Edward Herrmann, loosened up for a change) because he can’t slow down. We see that his precision-bombing smoothness shades into tickiness; as we all know there’s no clear boundary where control turns into its opposite.

Miles is thrown off balance because Marilyn, a dark, zaftig beauty, hits him where he didn’t think he was vulnerable. But he doesn’t ease up representing her husband in the divorce just because he’s in love. He’s not that kind of a fool. He uses his most infuriating tactics against Marilyn’s attorney, and then laughs when the man storms out of the meeting–“It’s a negotiation!” He expertly, and not fully legally, beats the golddigging Marilyn out of the settlement she’s “earned” but seems to think that she’ll take it in stride, as if he’d beat her at doubles in tennis. Of course, there would always be a cloud because she’s poorer (because of his adroit lawyering)–how will he know she really loves him?–but even that seems dispelled when she wins a settlement from her second husband that makes her the richer party. Miles feels he himself is rich enough to sign a Massey Pre-nup in order to win Marilyn. It’s the most romantic thing he can think of to do.

Intolerable Cruelty has a nifty plot but I don’t think it would be nearly as good without Clooney’s classic performance driving it forward. The opening, before Clooney has appeared, in which Geoffrey Rush finds his wife with the pool cleaner–in a house without a pool–is merely squawky. Once Rush’s wife goes to Miles for help, the movie hits its stride and never stumbles as long as Clooney is onscreen.

I also think that Clooney and Zeta-Jones don’t have the kind of “chemistry” that people look for in straight romantic comedies, but that doesn’t really matter. The movie is about Miles’s temptation and Zeta-Jones as Marilyn is tempting, God knows. Her style doesn’t match his but serves as a complement. The whole point of her role is to send ambiguous signals as to whether she’s been stirred by Miles’s energy and skill. Marilyn describes what kind of fool Miles is, and though she’s extraordinarily beautiful and self-possessed the joke is that this supremely confident and competent professional man is the ordinary kind of fool.

The chemistry doesn’t matter because the movie is a work of irony and so it doesn’t expect you to project yourself into the story the way romantic comedies do. Neither does Miles have to be likeable, exactly. We first see him getting his teeth whitened, and he keeps checking to see if they really look white (to see if he got his money’s worth? if they’re dazzling enough?) With Clooney playing Miles this vice doesn’t make him less attractive, and Miles’s lack of scruples is so open and so deeply incorporated into his snappy style that it’s comic, too.

Clooney has leapt right past the usual way an actor compounds a character out of the realistic details in the script. Rather, he seems to have become Miles and then played the script’s crazy mosaic of traits in character, all held together by a nervy command of artifice. This is how Miles would exert control, this is how Miles would experience doubt, fear, desire; this is how Miles would lose it. Miles is a live-born creation and yet one of the great pleasures of irony is being outside the character along with Clooney as he reveals him to us.

We believe in Miles’s proficiency sufficiently for the Coens’ disenchanted vision of Beverly Hills to cohere, but Clooney’s confidence is the real marvel here. His delivery has the speed you associate with Robin Williams or Michael Keaton, but he doesn’t come across as a comedy specialist. He’s not a disruptive clown but seems more integrated into the depthless adult world of the movie. He also has the sleek dominance, at once sports car and steamroller, that Kevin Spacey has shown at his most exalted-menacing, as an L.A. winner in Swimming with Sharks (1995), for instance, but Spacey has a fundamental seriousness that is almost leaden compared to Clooney’s mastery of artifice. (My guess is that if Spacey had had to choose between the role of Miles and Willy Loman in a movie version of Death of a Salesman he would have chosen the latter; I expect Clooney would have better sense.)

In addition, with Spacey irony is always a weapon, as it is with Bill Murray, in Groundhog Day (1993), for example. Because Clooney is not investing himself in the role as a naturalistic character, he’s able to use irony as a means of revelation perfectly in tune with the moviemakers’ intentions. (And the Coens are really on here. The movie reaches a climax with an episode involving an asthmatic hitman that is the funniest slapstick they’ve shot since Raising Arizona (1987).) As Miles, Clooney doesn’t make any direct emotional appeal to the audience and yet his high style is so smashingly effective that Miles stands open to us: macher, lover, patsy. Irony provides no shield for the character, and the actor doesn’t use it to assure us that he’s not the dupe his character is. Whether you’re laughing with Clooney or at Miles you’re laughing, and feeling the pleasure that an actor in total control of his means can give you.

Clooney can match any of these recent comedians for impact but he’s also romantic in a way they aren’t. He’s a movie star in the best old Hollywood sense–not just a recognizable product like Tom Cruise (who visibly sweated bullets to give his high-energy comic performance in Jerry Maguire (1996)) or Brad Pitt (who confuses narcissism with charm), but a performer who has the extraordinary skill to shape the material to his personality. As Miles he’s as antic as John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (1934) or Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), comic masters at the height of their powers, while maintaining a similar romantic suavity. (This material suits him much better than the bucolic slapstick of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).) Miles is all crisp image, which Clooney is able to sketch convincingly and undermine for laughs at the same time.

Northrop Frye has described the genre of irony as a parody of romance, the obvious example being Don Quixote. The point is to take the idealized, prettified forms of romance and put back into them the unidealized realities that romance excludes. Irony is the narrative equivalent of makeup remover; it isn’t just an attitude but a process. (In works like Don Quixote, which are closer to satire, the artist’s attitude is evident. In a more reticent work of irony such as Madame Bovary the artist’s attitude is more mysterious, in a way that is particularly hard for Americans to grasp.)

As a work of irony Intolerable Cruelty is not a romantic comedy but a parody of one. The hero is a cynical specialist in breaking marriages apart as profitably as possible for one party regardless of culpability, and the heroine is a woman who marries men likely to cheat on her so she can win a settlement that will make her independent of all men. The big inverted centerpiece of the movie is Miles’s keynote address at the convention held by his professional association, the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide (their slogan: “What God hath joined, let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder”). Believing Marilyn to be richer than himself, Miles has signed one of his own Pre-nups. He is in fact so smitten he tears the technical speech he had prepared in half, improvises a heartfelt paean to love, and announces he’s leaving the practice to do pro bono work, in East L.A. or one of those other … he’s not even sure what to call “them.”

This is what I love about the genre of irony–for once you’re not being treated like a sap. Irony can get ugly in its underestimation of human behavior, and can shut you out of the in-joke (that has been the fault of the Coen Brothers’ movies). But Clooney makes Miles too appealing, even while acknowledging his deficiencies, for these problems to arise. In addition, there’s no left-liberal sense of moral retribution for Miles’s being a vain Beverly Hills divorce attorney who has a tab at the Mercedes dealer. Everything that contributes to Miles’s success just makes him more appealing as a protagonist, though he’s also a buffoon. But he’s a fool because people are fools about love, even the ones who harbor the fewest illusions about it.

And Clooney’s performance opens up into an amusing low estimate of movie romance. In romantic comedy the conflicts that have kept the lovers apart are resolved at the end, permanently. Even if the resolution comes about by magic you feel that the conflicts will not rear up again. With irony the movie can bring the lovers together despite everything and still suggest the more realistic fact that the conflicts are quite likely to arise again. In Intolerable Cruelty these dolts are doing at the end what they’ve been doing all along: signing Massey Pre-nups against their better judgment and legal advice and tearing them up as proof of a love we suspect they can’t feel or sustain.

Carl Franklin’s Out of Time starring Denzel Washington is an example of irony in the hands of people who do not get what it’s for. They’re like children playing with a loaded gun. Washington is Matt Whitlock, chief of police in a small southern Florida town screwing around with a married woman who he believes is dying of cancer. Matt finds out from her doctor about an expensive experimental treatment available in Europe and so gives her the cash his officers confiscated from a drug bust. That night she and her husband die in a house fire and the next day the DEA calls for the money because it’s needed as evidence in a major trial.

The suspense of the movie lies in watching Matt solve the arson-murders at the same time that he suppresses all the leads that point to his involvement with the dead woman. It’s a nightmare plot and the way to make it work is to treat Matt’s moral vacuity as a hard fact and maybe as a bonus make it funny. This is the genius of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).

In terms of its narrative structure Out of Time is a work of irony, an inverted romance in which the knight is both less perceptive and honest than a true hero would be and his quest is a series of desperate, self-serving measures designed to hide rather than reveal the truth. The point of irony is that our fallen nature, the spiritual equivalent of our bodily functions, makes nonsense of the heroic romantic stories we tell each other. Those stories are lies and the pleasure of the ironist is to catch us out, handing us a tall, bracing glass of vinegar when we’re drooling for yet another soda pop. Because irony is an inversion of the form of romance, a movie like Out of Time doesn’t make sense if the makers treat the corrupt knight like a hero we can root for openly, unreservedly.

Out of Time has been shot as a “steamy” film noir but one at war with itself because although the protagonist is a dupe, Denzel Washington doesn’t play dupes. So instead the movie goes soft, as if stealing the drug money was a good thing because Matt believed the poor woman was dying of cancer. The fact that he’s been played for a sucker just means he’s “vulnerable.” Franklin and Washington turn the script into a straightforward story about a Boy Scout who makes a booboo, losing altogether what could have been the most interesting layer of the story, the sense that human personality is full of potholes of vice that everything we’ve built up for ourselves by long, hard labor can disappear into. One lapse trumps all.

In other words, there’s a “Gotcha!” inherent in this kind of irony that fuses the suspense and the comedy, making it so intensely entertaining. Without it, the story and the storytelling don’t match: the structure is ironic but the execution is sober. As a result Out of Time never finds a tone or a rhythm; it’s peculiarly literal and unaccented. And Franklin shoots right into the script’s weaknesses, treating as high suspense inherently unphotogenic sequences in which Matt works against time by computer, fax, and cell phone to avoid detection. In the one sequence when he actually has to go somewhere, the audience wakes up and doesn’t really care who falls off the hotel balcony just as long as something kinetic happens. (See Franklin’s movies One False Move (1992), starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, and Lisa Nicole Carson, to get a fair view of what he can do as a director, especially with actors.)

Washington has an amazing command of naturalistic technique. He’s particularly good here at overlapping, almost improvisational-sounding moments of casual dialogue. But because he avoids the irony there’s no texture to his performance. Playing this man who’s more corrupt than he intended to be, he has a mopey countenance when he starts realizing what’s up that is, frankly, a drag. By the end we’re meant to be relieved that Matt doesn’t get busted, and I wanted to holler. The man took money that was evidence of a crime and gave it to his girlfriend; he shouldn’t be chief of police. An ironist knows this in his bones. Franklin and Washington treat the story earnestly and become objects, rather than masters, of irony.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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About Alan Dale

  • Thanks for writing. Wish the movie had found more fans. I disagree with you only about the slapstick: I thought it was pretty good. To me the ending of the break-in with the inhaler/gun confusion was stunningly funny, so well thought-out that it erased the distinction between slapstick and wit. But I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to comedy. They can throw it all in together as far as I’m concerned–romantic comedy, verbal wit, irony, vaudeville routines, pratfalls. Bringing Up Baby is an example.

  • I enjoyed the review of Intolerable Cruelty and I thought I’d let you know. However, despite my enjoyment of the film, I thought it fell apart in a couple of places where the cynicism and quick witted humor gave way to slapstick that didn’t seem to fit the film – especially in the courtroom scene with the dog and the baron followed by the sadly predictable break-in scene towards the end of the film. Actually, most of the film was predictable, but enjoyable. I was just disheartened when the film moved from it’s quick-wit and (hehe) engaging plot to cheap laughs from pathetic slapstick. The movie moves at times from the humorous to the ridiculous and I simply wish it would have stuck with the former rather than the latter.

  • Man, Alan, what a great review! Saw Out of Time and enjoyed Washington’s performance for the most part, but there was something about the film bothered me all week (I saw it last Saturday) and it was more than the completely lame ending). You, Alan, provided me with the “aha!”, and I thank you for that.

    Did you see The School of Rock? Just saw it and I was not as jazzed by it as i had expected. I would love to see your thoughts on that film.

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree, I think George is pretty great. The Perfect Storm was really a crappy movie though, and I never got the sense that he found the center of that role.