Miles Massey is wealthy beyond reason, dashingly good looking, always immaculately attired, admired by colleagues, worshipped by clients, more accomplished than any person has a right to even dream and utterly bored with life. A divorce lawyer with an immensely successful case record, there’s scarcely a penny that Miles can’t squeeze from a philandering spouse. He considers their net worth “a map of enemy territory” to be conquered and tells his crestfallen patrons that life is nothing more than “struggle, challenge [and the] ultimate destruction of your opponent.”
When the unfaithful real estate tycoon Rex Rexroth hires Miles to represent him, Miles thinks it’ll be just another routine (read: boooooring) case. Then he meets Mrs. Marylin Rexroth. She’s a gorgeous gold-digger with a heart of ice, inexplicably affectionate one moment, completely standoffish the next, and always manipulating the situation for her own benefit. That makes her interesting. As the proceedings grind on, Miles finds himself more and more drawn to the mysterious Marylin. Could the impossible finally have happened? Could the utterly self-absorbed, pragmatic, hard-bitten divorce lawyer finally have fallen in love?
At first glance, marriage appears to take an intolerable beating. One nouveau riche divorcee says that money is the only reason you’d “put in all those years” and claims that sleeping with someone “is financial Russian roulette.” Marylin states that divorce is her “passport to wealth, independence and freedom.” Her last name eventually gains more hyphens than you'll find in the Oxford English Dictionary. But what puts an entirely different spin on those comments is how relentlessly lonely and unsatisfied Marylin, Miles and company are, despite the masses of lucre they’ve accumulated. Showing that dissatisfaction is a good message. And the film ultimately elevates marriage by showing that love—true, faithful, marital love—is not only desirable, but can survive the most damaging circumstances given a strong commitment by both parties.
A private eye named Gus says that most people who discover their spouses philandering “weep and wail like Baptists at a funeral.” A witness swears on a Bible in court. A guitar-strumming Roman Catholic priest marries Marylin and her second husband. Miles maintains that the nihilistic aphorism “God is dead” is part of what has destroyed people’s moral underpinnings in Las Vegas.
Infidelity and divorce often go hand in hand, and Miles’ profession brings him in contact with a lot of frank sexual discussions. Trying to justify himself to a cuckolded husband, a man figuratively caught with his pants down claims he’s impotent (he’s not). During a court case, a wife describes her husband’s bizarre sexual proclivities, which involve videotaping sex acts and constructing sex toys out of household appliances. Miles tries to build a case around the false supposition that a woman’s husband is gay.
Miles kisses Marylin several times. Rex and his illicit squeeze strip to their skivvies and writhe around on a hotel bed before being interrupted by a camera-toting Gus (their antics are replayed several times during the course of the litigation). A stray snippet of dialogue indicates Miles has worked on “palimony for same-sex marriages.” Gus talks about a woman taking off her panties in one of his videos and later makes a crude comment about his anus. After her first divorce, Marylin thinks people consider her a “harlot.” She also wears a number of tight, low-cut gowns. Rex bounces on a bed with a bevy of buxom beauties clad in lingerie. It’s implied that a newly married couple sleep together. Using his tapes, Gus starts a television show called America’s Funniest Divorce Videos and one brief segment shows some pixelated nudity.
When a Hollywood director discovers his wife is cheating on him, he pulls a pistol on her lover, only to be knocked over the head and stabbed in the rear with a sharp-tined awards statue. As his wife and her Lothario flee, he empties the gun at their vehicles. Rottweilers guarding Marylin’s house tear after intruders. Rex tries to strangle a witness in court who says that he’s “stupid.” A dog bites Miles’ hand. Several people get maced. A confused asthmatic assassin mistakes his gun for an inhaler and accidentally shoots himself in the mouth. A man dies of a heart attack.
Crude or Profane Language
An oft-repeated profane slogan (“I’m gonna nail your a--”) accounts for about 30 of the movie’s profanities. The f-word is egregiously used once and the s-word half-a-dozen times. About 20 other crudities and profanities round out the count. God’s name is abused over 15 times and Jesus’ twice. A Texan makes a crude comment about boar nipples.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol is consumed at dinners and weddings, and on airplanes. Rex drives drunk. Miles and his assistant, Wrigley, belly up to a bar for drinks.
Other Negative Elements
Miles hires Gus to break into Marylin’s house and photograph her address book. A woman says she receives “butt fat” facial injections. A lawyer claims that an argument by Miles is “a fart in a stiff wind.” Miles and Wrigley play slots in a casino. Fishing for a reason to get a person out of her house before a murderous hit man arrives, Miles says that a gas leak in the building will cause horrible diarrhea.
“I think [Intolerable Cruelty is] both pro-marriage and divorce,” states co-director Ethan Coen. That’s not an entirely candid conclusion. While his movie doesn’t provide a ringing denouncement of divorce, its cautiously optimistic ending (which finds two wounded individuals sincerely seeking to fix their fractured union) is much more marriage-friendly than that statement would lead you to believe. Add hilarious performances by George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, plus a quirky, idiosyncratic script that zings you with laughter one moment and yanks your heartstrings the next, and you’ve got nothing short of an excellent film. But that's a calculation unwisely concluded before rating-pushing profanity and frequent sexual antics are duly considered. Once that's done, families will be forced to agree that this is indeed an Intolerable Cruelty.