• In classic Coenian fashion, Intolerable Cruelty is an absurd, postmodern, slapstick, screwball
comedy – arguably their most extreme expression of this theme.
• Like in their other pictures, they use misunderstanding and scheming characters who get in
over their heads.
• They have different characters repeat key phrases, revealing the picture’s ultimate meaning:
“I’m gonna nail (his) your ass,” “You’re exposed!”
• As in Barton Fink (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998), this film is also set in Los Angeles
where we meet a cavalcade of the bizarre characters who inhabit the southland.
• As Lebowski was the second picture in their film-noir trilogy with Miller’s Crossing (1990) and
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) as bookends, Cruelty is sandwiched between O Brother,
Where Art Thou? (2000) and No Country for Old Men (2007) in their idiot trilogy.
• Why is Miles Massey an idiot? He chooses the legal profession. He chooses divorce law. He
chooses fame, fortune, and glory. He chooses to fall in love. All of these stupid choices lead to
George Clooney as Miles Massey
• Famous LA divorce attorney.
• Cynical, greedy, vain, amoral, narcissistic yet insecure buffoon obsessed with his
• Inventor of the “Massey” prenup, which is an iron-clad pre-marital agreement
protecting the assets of both parties in case of divorce.
• So unscrupulous that he also invents stories to ensure that his clients win such as in
the film’s opening when he helps Bonny Donaly ruin her husband’s successful TV
career and kick him to the gutter.
• What drives the famous and rich Massey? The game itself: “the ultimate destruction
of [his] opponent.”
• Massey resembles other shyster, soulless portrayals of attorneys such as Jim
Carrey’s Fletcher Reede in Liar, Liar (1997) and Al Pacino’s John Milton in The
Devil’s Advocate (1997) – can you do any worse than be the devil?
• Does the “lawyer-as-shyster” portrayal effect the public’s view of lawyers?
Catherine Zeta-Jones as
• Cynical, greedy, vain, amoral, walking man-trap, serial divorcee.
• Following in the footsteps of her other famously rich, divorced, LA ex-wives,
she requires a rich husband so that she can make hammer on his fanny.
• What drives Marilyn and her female friends? Why do they want to marry for
• Ultimately, we learn that women are duplicitous, gold-diggers—never to be
as Herb Myerson
• Grotesque, superannuated monster
without intestines who lives on a feeding
tube and endlessly intones statistics about
billable hours and summary judgments
• Lesson: if you work really hard at being an
attorney, this could be you…
Julia Duffy as Sarah Sorkin
• She sits around her mansion sipping drinks, scheduling hair
appointments and plastic surgeries, and watching her hunky hired help
do the yard work: “My goddamn husbands gave me the ulcer.”
• When Marilyn suggests that she could see people, she responds:
• “It’s risky. Palimony. Son of a bitch Marvin Mitchelson. I’m telling you,
honey, getting laid is financial Russian roulette.”
• Marvin Mitchelson was a celebrity divorce attorney who invented the
term “palimony” when he helped Michelle Triola sue actor Lee Marvin for
monetary compensation after their non-marital relationship ended.
Mitchelson went on to become THE relationship-attorney to the stars. On
her fifth husband, Zsa Zsa Gabor said: “He taught me housekeeping.
When I divorce, I keep the house.”
SNL’s Weekend Update
“Point-Counter-Point” on Triola
• Dan Aykroyd: I'm station manager Dan Aykroyd. During the past few weeks in
Los Angeles, actor Lee Marvin and his former live-in companion Michelle Triola
Marvin have been in court to settle her claim that he owes her half his income
from the six years they lived together. That is the subject of tonight's Point-
Counterpoint. Jane will take the pro-Michelle Marvin point, while I will take the
anti-Michelle Triola counterpoint. Jane?
Jane Curtin: Dan, times change and so does the nature of relationships. People
are reluctant to get married these days and looking at divorce statistics, who can
blame them. But the lack of a piece of paper does not necessarily mean a lack
of a total commitment. A woman in this modern-day relationship may well give
up all her personal pursuits, as Michelle Marvin claims she did, to give her full
support to her man's career. And Michelle Marvin is just asking that the courts
recognize that reality. Dan, there's an old saying: "Behind every successful man
there's a woman." A loving, giving, caring woman. But you wouldn't know about
that, Dan, because there's no old saying about what's behind a miserable
SNL’s Weekend Update “Point-
Counter-Point” on Triola
• Dan Aykroyd: Jane, you ignorant slut! Bagged-
out, dried-up, slunken meat like you and Michelle
Triola know the rules. If you want a contract, sign
on the dotted line. Oh, but let's all shed a tear for
poor Michelle Triola. There was only testimony
that she had sexual intercourse over forty times
with another man while living with actor Lee
Marvin. But I suppose that sort of fashionable
promiscuity means nothing to you, Jane, who
hops from bed to bed with the frequency of a
cheap ham radio. But hell hath no fury like a
woman's scorn, and Michelle Triola, like a
screeching, squealing, rapacious swamp sow is
after actor Lee Marvin's last three million dollars.
I guess what you and Michelle are saying is that
when you're on your backs, the meter is running.
Well, please spare us, gals, and tell us the rate's
at the top. Then we can choose which two bit
tarts and bargain basement sluts to shack up
• Rex Rexroth – rich, adulterous, train-lover.
• Freddy Bender – Boring, successful,
attorney who is easily outwitted by Massey
even though Massey did not clerk for a
Supreme Court justice.
• Gus Petch – Every attorney needs a good
private investigator and when Gus Petch
finds an ass, he nails it!
• Judge Marva Munson – Totally
disinterested and disengaged: she’s going
to allow it…
• Heinz The Baron Krauss Von Espy –
steals the movie as the star witness in the
• Howard D. Doyle – Tight End, Texas
• Wheezy Joe – His asthma ultimately does
• Massey is similar to film noir’s morally ambiguous
protagonists – he knows better than to fall in love with
the femme fatale yet he cannot help it and we know
better than to fall for the “wrong” ones yet we do it too..
• Love an marriage is portrayed as the highly commercial
business it has become in our postmodern world:
– from the garish wedding of John D. Doyle and Marilyn where you
bring a berry spoon for a gift to kitschy-kilt Vegas nuptials with
– from prenups to divorces;
– from fancy suits, teeth-whitening procedures, and Beverly Hills
offices to mansions, chiseled gardeners, and botox injections.
• The film portrays fault-divorce and women benefiting
financially from quickie marriages. Yet for 40 years, no-
fault divorce and community property have nullified fault-
finding and minimized the adversarialism depicted in the
picture in the vast majority of divorce cases.
• Still, in situations involving one party as the breadwinner
and the other as the homemaker, division of assets is not
so clear—particularly when big money is at stake.
• Even though judges have long split marital estates equally
in working-class and middle-class divorces, at the time of
this film, that result was virtually unheard of in mega-
• For example, in 1997, Lorna Wendt, the ex-wife of a
former General Electric executive, made headlines
merely by asking a Connecticut judge for half of Gary
Wendt’s $100 million fortune. Though they were high-
school sweethearts and married for 32 years she was
the homemaker while he was the breadwinner. Lorna
Wendt testified at the trial that her contributions to the
marriage were as valuable as the paycheck her
husband brought home, and that while she ran the
household and raised the Wendts' two daughters, she
also worked side by side with her husband as an
adviser, business hostess, traveling partner and
representative to various charitable and community
• He offered her $11 million. She refused. A judge
awarded her less than she sought, but still about $20
million: a multimillion-dollar house in Stamford,
Connecticut and a house in Key Largo, Fla.; $252,000
a year, payable in equal monthly installments of
$21,000; half of all stocks, bonds, cash and mutual
funds in 19 accounts; and memberships in the Ocean
Reef Club in Key Largo and the Stanwich Club in
• Lorna Wendt has taken her crusade to the masses at:
www.equalityinmarriage.com. Why? Because she,
like others, feel that the “enough-is-enough” standard
that judges use to award less than half of the assets
to the economically dependent spouse is unfair.
Mega Divorce: Now
• So why did the Coen’s take on this topic at that time? Because
films are contextual and reflect the time they are made in. Enough-
is-enough, mega-rich divorce, was a relatively new and growing
issue in American at the time.
• Indeed, in October 2006, a Chicago judge awarded half of energy
Entrepreneur Michael Polsky’s $352 million fortune to his
homemaker wife after 31 years of marriage. The judge ordered that
Michael gets the $7 million home in Aspen, Colorado, the $2.9
million residence in Chicago, and the $2.1 million home in East
Troy, Wisconsin. Maya gets the $2 million home in Glencoe and
the $3.7 million home on Lake Shore Drive. She also gets various
investments and case and keeps the May Polsky Gallery, valued at
$305,000. The judge also divided millions more in paintings,
jewelry, rugs, and other home furnishings.
• Divorce law is skewed as far as possible in order to stress the absurdity of
the legal process: the law is supposed to ensure fairness and justice yet it is
wholly arbitrary and totally unjust.
• Attorneys (Massey, Myerson, Bender, and the Judge) are ridiculous
caricatures of what we would hope for: engaged, fair, and honest.
• The Massey prenup is so groundbreaking that they spend an entire
semester on it at Harvard – yeah right! Maybe an semester on family law but
not even an entire semester on divorce law…
• Millionaire Massey tells the other successful divorce attorneys that “love is
good” and they give him a standing ovation – nothing could be further from
• Through over-the-top satire, we learn that legal actors and the legal process
Satire as Indictment
• The Coen’s want to tackle the issue of love/marriage/divorce because there are
currently 20 million divorced people in American, up from 4.3 million only three
decades ago and mega-divorce is an increasingly important issue.
• Everything about the film is absurd, unreal, and therefore reflective of our postmodern
• The film is an indictment of the holy trinity of “real” institutions that nearly every
American aspires to:
1. love, relationships, marriage
2. fortune, wealth, materialism
3. celebrity, fame, status
• Ultimately, if you are able to see the Coen’s trampolining cartoonishness as a
cinematic device you recognize the larger point: only idiots attempt to attain these false
goals and the price they pay is inevitable betrayal and revenge.
• Hence, aspire to any or all of the holy trinity at your own peril… caveat emptor…
• Atkinson, Michael, “Enemies, a Love Story,” The Village Voice, October
• Bradshaw, Peter, “Intolerable Cruelty,” The Guardian, October 24,
• Knowles, Harry, “Intolerable Cruelty Review,” www.aintitcool.com,
October 8, 2003.
• Palmer, R. Barton, Joel and Ethan Coen (Urbana, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 2004).
• Tweedle, Paul, “My Review,” www.youknow-forkids.com.
• Quinn, Anthony, “Hollywood Does Divorce,” The Independent, October
• Walsh, Sharon and Devon Spurgeon, “Executive’s Wife Awarded Half
of All Assets,” Washington Post, December 5, 1997.