RIORI Vol 3, Installment 30: Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)


The Players…

George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrman, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein and Cedric The Entertainer, with Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Jenkins.

The Story…

Love is fleeting as it’s been said. That’s why we have prenups. Serial golddigger Marilyn has a made a career of “marrying right” in order to divorce when the check clears. Finding Mr Right is a distant second to scoring Mr Right For Now.

When Marilyn solicits Miles Massey’s law firm for her latest chump to dump, he smells a rat and a scam. And an irresistible fiscal black widow Miles can only regard as “fascinating.”

And the case. Right, let’s not forget the case.

The Rant…

Short one this week. Kick back. Grab some Cheetos.

So. Do you remember your first Coen Brothers’ movie?

I do. They’re kinda like an event nowadays. Films made for a cult audience before the cult’s even made. I first experienced that hoo-hah back in college, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.

My first toe-dip into the Coen’s olympic-sized film pool was by way of Raising Arizona. Didn’t get it then. I was a kid. Liked Nic Cage because he was loony and hammy. Saw Arizona the same year Peggy Sue Got Married came out on video. Even though being a kid and totally removed from the film’s 50s pop culture references I liked that film enough. It was where I first met Cage really, and got reacquainted with that funny lady from Romancing The Stone, too, which was nice—mostly for Cage’s nasally delivery. The whole time travel thing was cool, too. Such simpler movie watching times then.

So me being a nascent Cage fan, hearing about the Arizona movie I checked it out. Like I said, didn’t get it. Too young. But Nic was clowning around and the whole goofy kidnapping caper tickled my fancy, enough so that I still remember the film aeons later. Must’ve left an impression.

The Coen’s movies sure do that. Leave an impression. It might not always be a good impression, but their signature sticks in your teeth like a Jolly Rancher, regardless of being either sweet or sour. Sure, other directors have their signature thumbprints all over their work (e.g.: Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc), and you look forward to their usual antics, but the Coen’s work is so oblique, so abstract, so f*cking weird we don’t get thumbprints. We get a five-fingered slap. And it can feel oh so good.

But for every Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing, we can also get The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Paris, Je T’Aime. I ain’t saying the latter films suck, but the Coen impression is skewed here, beyond the wacky scripts and bizarre acting. There’s inconsistency with the impression. Even some of Spielberg’s lesser films still smell like a steady Spielberg project. Coen films are a lot like comparing sex and pizza. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still good. But for both accounts, when it’s bad is isn’t necessary bad when it comes to Coen films. But it can be unsatisfying.

Akin to my Raising Arizona story, that Coen impression can be so palpable that when you watch one of their fluffier films you run the risk of walking away scratching your head. “What was up with that?” you may ask yourself after watching Inside Llewyn Davis two weeks after seeing No Country For Old Men. You dig? With the Coen brothers, it’s never really a good impression or a bad one. Across a continuum it can be a baffling impression. I understand all directors want to squeeze the orange every so carefully with each of their ensuing films, but the Coen’s work is so eclectic, and their quality is so all over the map it gets hard to adjust your lens.

Take this week’s installment…

She’s cunning. She’s deceptive. She’s gorgeous. And she’s loaded, which is separate from her other assets.

Marilyn Rexroth (Jones) is a serial golddigger. Professional golddigger is more apt, and she knows how to squeeze both a bank account and a scrotum with equal ease. The former is her weapon of choice. And her latest stupid, prey is on the chopping block, the cheating Rex Rexroth (Herrman). So to make sure she gets the biggest buck for her bang, Marilyn seeks out the best counsel against the law firm of Massey et al to secure the prenuptials.

Slick marriage attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) knows a ripe peach when he picks one. Marilyn’s beguiling…case proves to be a curious one. Miles suspects Marilyn isn’t the damaged, rueful ex-wife she appears to be. He scours about the law community trying to get some scuttlebutt on this woman’s true motives—which are painfully obvious.

But as Miles gets to understand his quarry, he finds himself slowly getting tangled in Marilyn’s web of…of…

How fascinating…

Like I began to babble about up top, my first real Coen movie exposure came in my senior year of college. Not one of their films, per se, just the reactions to one. The movie of the moment then, whose buzz could not be killed with an entire pallet of Raid was The Big Lebowski. My peers raved. They cheered. They took the White Russian-soaked philosophical mumblings of The Dude quite seriously. A cult was brewing. I was hesitant.

I’ve always been suspicious of the mass pop cultural appeal towards the movie/TV show/band/book/yoga position of the moment. For example, when the novel The DiVinci Code was the book on everyone’s quivering lips, I steered clear. Since the majority of Americans are functionally illiterate, when the hoi polloi starts salivating over a few pages, I arch a brow. I once got a “recommendation” for Dan Brown’s opus from a bar buddy of mine. Her claim, “Don’t worry. The chapters are short” was hardly a ringing endorsement. Back when Lebowski was the flavor of the week, and my esteemed colleagues would just not quit answering all questions with, “The Dude abides,” I slinked away and said later, gator. It took many years for me to get around to see the thing. Then and only then I figured out what my friends were slobbering over. It’s a great movie, granted. I guess I had already seen a lot of other films from the Coen Canon before my eventual few frames with Walt and Donny, so when the hammer came down I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course I was pleased. Because that crucial Coen impression was slathered all over the place.

Cruelty has the impression all right. It’s just not a good impression, and not in the sex/pizza paradigm, either.

Let’s get right to the point, Cruelty is a comedy in the vein of its Coen-helmed ancestor, Raising Arizona. Only it’s the opposite. Where the latter was an experiment in the bizarre, and totally left field compared to other comedies of its ilk back in 1987 (eg: Three Men And A Baby. Need I say more, Spock?), the former is a straightforward black comedy. Arizona was the anti-comedy. Cruelty is a winking screwball comedy. Almost, but lacks bite. A great part of the Coen’s impression is bite. Stinging, ribald, getting-under-the-skin bite. Cruelty has almost no bite. It gums. It’s goofy, to be sure as comedies like these are, but the movie flies by in such a gale that nothing gets a chance to take hold. Stick. Penetrate. Chafe. Ow.


Cruelty is a slick caper, this one. It’s not that there’s anything overtly off-putting here—acting’s good, story’s not dull, Jones is hot—but one gets the feeling that the Coens are deliberately holding back. You know, taking a few Ativan and seeing if they can bring wacky, campy sh*t to rise minus the late Randall “Tex” Cobb and his shenanigans. The end result here doesn’t feel very organic though, not the way like, say Fargo was. And that movie was a lot funnier than Cruelty is, albeit more stark. Then again Cruelty is a deliberate black comedy, trying very hard to be screwy, and maybe on purpose. I mean, it felt like the Coens were reaching for something here, something more mainstream in a comedy compared to their past efforts. But the whole thing just zooms by with nary a whit of subtly, like there’s some hurry to get to the resolution or the kitties will burn. It’s like staring into the microwave, watching that spinning cup of coffee boil over.

In simpler terms, slow it the f*ck down. Moving on.

Cruelty kinda reminds me of one of those daffy comedies starring Cary Grant back in the day. It’s would explain Clooney’s delivery, all snapping teeth, mile-wide smile and silver-tongued scene chewing. His Miles is a second cousin to Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—I know, I know. One more Coen movie citation and out the window with me—all fast talking and on the cusp of total ham. Whereas Ulysses tried to be an honorable husband and dad, Miles’ smarminess belies a petulant, pimply teen inside, always squirming with self-doubt. For all his wheeler-dealing, high-end divorce lawyer guise, what ultimately motivates him is getting girls to notice him. There are plenty of scenes when Miles is scampering about like spoiled, randy teenager, all bluff and bluster. It’s somewhat charming, but not necessarily endearing. Miles’ is ostensibly the protagonist; why’s he so reactionary?

Perhaps because Jones’ Marylin is so seductive, and not in the silk stocking kind of way. She’s a smooth operator, all right. Some master criminals scheme their schemes with maniacal glee. Well, so does Marilyn. Save the rare remorseful, crying jag she’s as scheming as they come. In a way, her nefarious lack of bluster makes her all the more Black Widow-type. Only instead of killing her prey, she kills their livelihood. It’s a kind of bullying really, and maybe a form of radical feminism. I don’t need a man for what he can give me; I want what he can give me. Jones is the villain here, and a delicious chimera if there ever was one. Best part of the film I figure. And kudos to the wardrobe department.

Despite the mostly seamless (get it?), winding, interconnecting plot threads in Cruelty, the whole thing comes across as way to busy and rushed. Feels like Coen comedy lite. Sure, it was amusing, and professional in its execution. And it did smack of a Coen Brothers madcap comedy, but everything was too measured. No real edge. No Hudsucker here. No tension. Slick like Miles courtroom babbling and everything streamlined because Marilyn has other fish to fry. Hurry, hurry, hurry. IfI get to timer watching—so to speak—there be a problem, laddie buck.

Welp, that’s about it as far as this installment goes. Other things of note (I don’t want to be derelict in my duties by ignoring other noteworthy sh*t. Yer welcome) that Cruelty sports the usual, eclectic, tasteful, awesome supporting cast of misfits and wastrels. We still have plenty of Andy Kaufman-esque “punk the audience” humor. There was a fair amount of head-scratching curiosity (one could say too much). The movie didn’t outright suck, but it was for lacking. Cruelty was a casserole of half-baked ideas and malformed notions, and maybe all a deliberate mess. Taken as a whole, Cruelty was sadly less than the some of its more impressive parts.

Y’know, now that I think about it, Cruely kinda played like a mashup of other Coen comedies. This specimen seemed fused together from ideas scattered on the cutting room floor. Was this part of any underlying comedy here? Like the Coens were trying to bait the audience by preying on blind fandom and Jones’ boobies?

And do they even have cutting rooms anymore?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Hey, not every Coen Brother film is worth quoting, y’dig? It’s like this is what happens when you find a stranger in th—Ow!

Stray Observations…

  • I think this is the first movie I’ve seen starring Jones with her not shedding the Brit accent. Maybe the lilt in her speech was meant to make her Marilyn all the more intriguing.
  • “We’ll eat the pastry!”
  • Was it just me, but didn’t Miles’ big speech at the convention kinda flow like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr Smith Goes To Washington? Like I claimed, classic comedy film undertones. Discuss.
  • “This man is tuna.” F*cking vile, that.
  • Living Without Intestines. Now that’s bathroom reading. And it has a pinup!
  • “Who needs a home when you have a colostomy bag?” Good point.
  • Talk about eating your words (*rimshot*).
  • “Punky’s Dilemma.” Clever.
  • “I nailed your ass!”


Next Installment…

The Physician of the Middle Ages understood that the only real obstacle on the way to becoming a healer was ignorance. And superstition. And the Catholic Church. And the Inquisition. And traveling afar to unknown lands. And eventually HMOs. And…

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 20: George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” (2008)


The Players…

George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce.

The Story…

Professional football back in the 20s was just finding its feet. Back then, despite its small fan base, pro ball was more of a novelty than anything. Most folks smirked; no way that guys would ever be paid to play ball, not with the competition of college football riding so high. But it looks like the fans demand pro football…all twelve of them.

So spunky sports reporter Roxie has this nose for news, and to grab a scoop on the possibility of a real American pro football league sounds delicious. She seeks out Dodge, a too-old-to-play rapscallion about the potential future of football as proper spectator sport.

Roxie fast learns she should’ve double-checked her resources.

The Rant…

Two things:

  1. Sorry I’ve been away from so long. I just put in 21 days in a row at work (which must violate the Constitution is some way, shape or form) and sleep was a more precious commodity than blog upkeep. Besides, I had no damn time to watch any new films, so get off me.
  2. I’ve been derelict in my duties. I’ve been comparing the trade and this blog looks very primitive. I wish I knew more about customizing on WordPress but I’m too damned busy elsewhere (life, work, kid, whatever comes after lifeworkkid) to make these posts look snappy. A web pal of mine says it’s all about the content, but what good is the content if its packaging is lame? I could use some suggestions and input into making RIORI more shiny.

Back to movies…

This is not my first comedy I’ve covered. It is however the screwiest comedy I’ve ever covered. Leatherheads is a comedy in the most earthy way: madcap. No redeeming dramatic factors backing it up. Sure, we have he classic hero-villain-intermediary triad working, but it’s all very squishy. More on that later, but now it’s time for the traditional intro:

I’ve never been a football fan. I know it sounds very not ‘Mericun to not be into football (and not be “accused” of being gay for it) in these our United States. Sorry. The closest I ever got into football was in college cheering on the Syracuse Orangemen every Saturday from the end zone as a member of the marching band. And here’s something for you: it’s hard to get behind college football on the idiot box when you get prime seats gratis for four years where the ref can actually hear your protests about fouls. Beyond that catbird seat, I could give two sh*ts about football.

That is not to say that I’m not interested in the history of the game. Football’s the biggest commodity in pro sports as far as I understand. Think about how much Super Bowl ad spots go for and you get what I’m saying. Its influence is huge, and has weaved endless threads into our national conscious that can never be undone.

Like I said, I don’t really like football, but I sure as hell can’t deny it. Something as big as pro football had to start somewhere. The acorn and the oak and alla dat. I‘d like to imagine the history of the pro game began with a bunch of hardscrabble youths took to warping British rugby into the game as we know it today. Maybe it was just a bunch of guys (let’s face it, it had to be guys. Not men, but guys) who liked getting down and dirty and playing in the mud. Or perhaps it was just some knuckleheads who plum enjoyed smashing into things.

I think the last part is the closest analog to the truth as far as Leatherheads goes…

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is washed up. Or at least very close to the shoreline. He could have dedicated his life after the Great War to some noble effort like curing some disease or erecting mighty buildings. Nope. Instead he opted for punting the pigskin in the haphazard world of fledgling professional football. He’s past his prime, on the far side of forty and has absolutely no clue how to contribute to society in a meaningful fashion. And besides, it’s not as if pro football has any hope of being a big deal after all, not with college ball being so popular, and those kids are amateurs.

Dodge is the captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a team so low on the tier they can barely afford a pot to piss in. While there’s no real money to be made in pro ball, Dodge and his cohorts—ahem, teammates—work with what they have (even if it’s only one ball) and just try to have fun, not giving a damn. But Dodge, who let’s face it, has very little good years left in him (not as if there were a lot in the first place), is stubborn. He figures with the right marketing, pro ball could not only become a legitimate enterprise but also a profitable one. He figures all he needs is the right kind of player. Someone that crowds could rally around, want to see him shine on the field. A football star. That’s the ticket. Don’t you know Dodge has the perfect player in mind.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinksi) is a war hero, athlete, scholar and all around the envy of everyone. He’s handsome, modest, a real Boy Scout and before his college years had concluded, was capable of whipping the crowds into a fomenting frenzy playing college ball. How about football as a career? Please. Carter has more that tossing around the old pigskin lined up for his future. Well, not if Dodge has anything to say about it. He’s sure he found his golden boy. Now how to convince him to join the Bulldogs in hopes to make pro football legit?

Yet is Carter’s rep as shiny as it seems? Can he really be America’s son? Dodge certainly thinks so, but not spunky news reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger). She smells a rat. There’s something fishy about Carter’s war story, and he may not be the golden boy the public esteems. No matter to Dodge. Carter’s his man, warts and all. But the dauntless reporter wants the truth, for is Carter too good to be true?

What to do? What to do? Hell, let’s just work it out on the field…

I liked this one. I’m not one for screwball comedies, and Leatherheads came perilously close to that, but on the whole it was a witty little film. It wasn’t outright funny, but always on the cusp of going off the tracks. Whether or not this was director Clooney’s intentions I have no idea. But I did like this one.

Leatherheads is Clooney’s third film he directed, and this time it feels like he tried to apply a few things he learned from the Coen Brothers (down to hiring some of the same actors). It’s got that left-of-center feel like most Coen comedies possess, and Clooney does well with the fast talking, carnival barker type delivery and dialogue he affected in their movies. Even the editing seems Coen-ish. Hard to figure if this was a Clooney project alone or a wink and a nod to the Brothers themselves. Either way it doesn’t matter. Leatherheads moves swiftly along with its story with highly quotable, snappy dialogue, sight gags, hammy acting and borderline screwball antics. Couldn’t help but smile during this movie.

However not all is fair in love, football and acting. Again, I don’t know if Clooney was shooting for this, but the leads feel like they’re adhering to stereotypes on purpose. For instance, Zellweger has the right attitude as the spitfire His Girl Friday. Too right an attitude. Clooney is the loveable ruffian, and Krasinski with the most sincere face. These are archetypes in cinema, inescapable no matter how you dress them up. But there’s no real flair to any of these characters. Nothing that would make them stand out in a police line up for committing anything remarkable. There needed to be a little more meat on the bones for me to really embrace the acting, which was serviceable but like I said, needed more oomph.

One thing this movie does well is illustrate the hardscrabble life pro football had, all low rent and humble, well, well before the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. And speaking of dollars, I uncovered a possible argument why Leatherheads didn’t score many points (ha!) at the multiplex. In an interview Clooney said that he made this movie with a specific age bracket in mind, the oh so lucrative 50 to 80 year-old demographic.

*screeching of tires*

What the what? That kind of marketing would get you killed in war! Deliberating aiming beyond the apocryphal 25 to 40 year old demo is akin to Hollywood budgetary suicide! Did they even have movies fifty years ago? What in the name of Heisman was Clooney thinking? A surefire way to meet The Standard is to lose money on an earnest project. Clooney succeeded, but what guts. In a world of youth and glam overly revered in Hollywood that to make a film with grandpa in mind is so crazy that it almost worked.

Admittedly Leatherheads tried a bit too had to be old-timey, right down to the font used for the opening credits. There’s a certain Marx Brothers quality to the film, and that also is an acquired taste (one I have) for an older audience. Like I said, there’s an underlying madcap tone to the whole picture, humor steeped in pop culture from many moons ago. Leatherheads is not a laugh out loud comedy. Sure, it’s funny, but it goes for the element of “smart” funny that values wit over fart jokes. It’s all a very slick affair.

Perhaps that senior citizen factor failed because it alienated a good percentage of moviegoers. Who really wants to see gutbucket football in action from three generations ago, besides Gramps, me and football enthusiasts? Good question. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, because a good movie is a good movie. Leatherheads is not a great movie, and can be a bit creaky at times, but I liked it. A solid okay would be the best way to describe it.

So what have we learned?

Working 21 days in row sucks and keeps me away from movies and RIORI (as well as food, drink, sleep, sex and sanity), my blog needs a new coat of paint and Leatherheads was a solid, yet mediocre film with a few highlights.

Overall it’s good to be back. Sorry I was away for so long. I left kisses on the pillow.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Leatherheads may have an acquired taste, but it won’t be a bitter one (insert clever football analogy here, ‘cause I can’t think of one. Not a fan, remember?).

Stray Observations…

  • The filmmakers neglected the actual gridiron pattern on the field that was standard for football back in the day. Someone was asleep at the wheel.
  • “You went to college?” “Colleges.”
  • Hey! It’s Vinnie Delpino, Doog!
  • “I didn’t come over here to be insulted.” “There where do you usually go?”
  • I loved the set pieces and costumes. Someone sure didn’t skimp in the wardrobe department.
  • “I don’t drink.” “You will.”
  • I didn’t give much of a shout out to Jonathan Pryce’s performance as promoter CC Frazier. He’s very dry and sullen. I like that in a classic antagonist.
  • “There’s always baseball.”

Next Installment…

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?