Star-Crossed Lovers: The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, and American Screwball Comedy

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

In my Historical Dictionary of American Cinema I define screwball comedy as “a form of romantic comedy in which a couple, seemingly ill matched due to differences in temperament, social class, or other circumstances, negotiates a series of comical obstacles on their way to establishing a romantic relationship.”[1] That succinct and basic definition in itself, however, does not quite capture the wacky spirit and off-center perspective that set screwball comedy apart from ordinary romantic comedies and that made screwball comedy one of the highlights of Hollywood cinema from films such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) to the beginning of the American involvement in World War II. That screwball comedy had such a short period of prominence should come as no surprise: while films with strong elements of screwball comedy have never stopped appearing, the genre is very much rooted in the 1930s, when it was, like the musical, one of the central attempts to take advantage of the new resources of sound film as a means of producing films that could provide a distraction from the hardships of the Great Depression. For example, as with film noir, screwball comedy is noted for its use of witty, rapid-fire dialogue, especially between the male and female leads, something that obviously could not have been done in the silents. In addition, screwball comedy shares with the “social problem” dramas of the 1930s a particular rootedness in the social realities of the Depression era. In particular, the obstacles in the path of the romantic protagonists of screwball comedy are quite often economic ones, typically having to do with the fact that one partner (usually the woman) has a much loftier economic status than the other. Screwball comedy is thus closely related to a growing awareness of the extremity of class inequality in America amid the hardships of the 1930s, but it also attempts to minimize the importance of this inequality by making it a subject of humor—and one that can ultimately be overcome. Finally, it is no accident that screwball comedies came into being just as the restrictive Hollywood Production Code went into full enforcement in 1934, and the sometimes extreme shenanigans that appear in screwball comedies can often be seen as a way of getting around the restrictions of the Code by using a different kind of code of their own, though in this sense screwball comedy perhaps most closely resembles film noir, which would continue this strategy for avoiding censorship in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Coens are not operating under the restrictions of the Code, but—given the obvious fascination of the Coens with 1930s and 1940s Hollywood—it should come as no surprise that screwball comedy and film noir—so rooted in those two decades, respectively—are the two film genres that the brothers draw upon most extensively in their own filmmaking. Chapter 1 of this volume discussed the Coens’ creative use of elements from film noir in their own work; this chapter looks at their engagement with screwball comedy. Elements of both screwball comedy and film noir are, of course, distributed throughout the Coens’ work. These two chapters, however, concentrate on the films in which these elements are strong enough to be a dominant influence on the overall style and tone of the film. In the case of screwball comedy, those films would be The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty.

The Hudsucker Proxy: Workers of the World, Never Mind

The Hudsucker Proxy would at first glance seem to be, above all, a somewhat lighthearted satire of the burgeoning world of corporate consumer capitalism in the 1950s. Yet, if Intolerable Cruelty is the closest the Coens come to pure screwball comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy represents their most successful and creative engagement with the genre. This film, in fact, draws extensively upon a number of Golden Age Hollywood genres, as well as specific films—especially the films of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and Howard Hawks. Though not one of their better-known or most widely-admired films, The Hudsucker Proxy (written by the Coens in conjunction with their buddy Sam Raimi) indicates as well as any other film the complex multigeneric nature of the work of the Coen Brothers, as well as exemplifying their peculiar insider-outsider status with regard to Hollywood.

The Hudsucker Proxy begins with a shot of the Manhattan skyline, toward which the camera gradually zooms in as a voiceover narrator (Moses, an old black man who tends the clock and keeps it running, played by Bill Cobbs) explains that it is New Year’s Eve, 1958. We are, the narrator explains, on the cusp of a new year and on the verge of the future. Eventually, the camera zeroes in on a clock that is approaching midnight; underneath is a sign reading “The Future is Now.” We will soon learn that this clock is on the side of the towering Hudsucker Building and that this sign is the slogan of Hudsucker Industries, whose business is booming. The seeming air of optimism, however, is undercut at this point by the narrator’s acknowledgement that “we got somethin’ here called the rat race. Got a way of chewing folks up so that they don’t want no celebratin’, don’t want no cheering up, don’t care nothin’ ’bout no New Year’s. Outta hope, outta rope, outta time.” Then the narrator introduces Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), the president of Hudsucker Industries. Continuing the ominous note just sounded by the narrator, Barnes is stepping through the window of his office onto a ledge high above the street below. Whether he will jump, the narrator says, is uncertain, because the future is unknowable. The past, however, is a different matter, thus setting up the rest of the film, which is the story of the events that led Barnes to his current plight.

The story begins with Barnes’ initial arrival in New York, fresh off the bus from Muncie, Indiana. Already, then, the film draws upon the Coens’ keen eye for geographical variations in the texture of American society, with Muncie here exemplifying the supposed innocence and naiveté of the small-town Midwest, and New York exemplifying the promise (and the threat) of the bustling big city. But this motif also already indicates the Coens’ keen knowledge of film history, given that this device of a small-town innocent arriving to take on the big city is such an important one in Golden Age film. Here, the most directly relevant precedent is probably Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which Gary Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds comes to New York from the sleepy hamlet of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. Deeds, however, arrives already rich, having just inherited $20 million, so his biggest problem is protecting his fortune from schemers, rather than trying to make a fortune, as in the case of Barnes.

Barnes (whose very name suggests rusticity) is a rube who has come to make it big in the city without any clear idea of how he plans to do so and with few resources to aid him. He has graduated from Muncie College of Business Administration, but he seems ill-prepared for the business world. For example, he is surprised to learn, on arriving in New York, that virtually all available jobs require experience, which he does not have. Then fate seemingly takes a hand, as a sheet from a newspaper blows along the sidewalk and sticks to his leg. When he removes the sheet from his leg and looks at it, he finds that a ring of coffee stain has perfectly encircled an ad for employment at Hudsucker Industries, specifying that no experience is necessary. Of course, the ad also announces that employment with the firm will involve long hours and low pay, so even this seeming bit of luck has more than one side to it—as does virtually everything in this film. Barnes rushes to the Hudsucker Building, entering just as Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning)—the company’s founder, president, CEO, and chief stockholder—leaps through the window of the corporate boardroom (in the midst of a board meeting) and plummets to his death on the sidewalk below. This dark moment, however, is treated comically—and then joked about ad infinitum by the building’s manic elevator operator, Buzz (Jim True), as the mixed mode of this film becomes increasingly clear.

Barnes attains a job in the company mailroom, the classic entry-level position, especially in the world of film. It is, for example, the initial position taken by Robert Morse’s J. Pierrepont Finch when he goes to work for the World Wide Wicket Company in the 1967 film How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Indeed, on closer examination, almost everything in The Hudsucker Proxy seems to have been taken from the world of film, not the world of reality, despite the fact that the events are so precisely located in a specific time and place. However, while Finch quickly rises to become chairman of the board at World Wide Wicket, initial signs are that, in the case of Hudsucker Industries, advancement beyond the mailroom is unlikely for Barnes. Nevertheless, the young man has arrived in New York armed with what he sees as a big idea (which turns out to be the Hula Hoop), though others initially scoff at the invention. Barnes has also arrived at the company just as Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), Hudsucker’s former second-in-command, is hatching a scheme to replace Hudsucker (who had personally owned 87% of the company’s stock) with an incompetent so that the company’ stock will tank, allowing Mussburger and his cronies to buy up the stock formerly owned by Hudsucker at a discount rate. Mussburger spots Barnes and immediately concludes that he is a bumbling idiot. He quickly moves to make Barnes the new president of the company, though Mussburger plans to retain the real power himself.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) Directed by Joel Coen Shown: Tim Robbins (as Norville Barnes)

At first, the plan seems to be working, as Hudsucker stock plummets. The film then takes a sudden turn into movie history as Barnes draws the attention of the editor (played by John Mahoney) of the Manhattan Argus, who thinks that Barnes’ story might help sell papers. He assigns Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to find out all she can about Barnes. Archer’s entrance also signals the beginning of the film’s screwball comedy plot, and her whole newspaper-reporter plot line seems to be largely a pastiche of Hawks’ screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), starring Rosalind Russell as fast-talking reporter Hildy Johnson. Leigh signals the artificiality of her role—and the fact that it is derived from earlier films—by hamming it up to the hilt, strutting about the screen doing a running imitation of Russell, but also tossing in a strong dose of Katharine Hepburn, probably the greatest female film star of Russell’s era and the star of important screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). It’s an overtly cinematic performance, and Leigh clearly means to call attention to her imitation of her illustrious predecessors. To make the role effective, of course, Leigh has to exaggerate and overplay her imitations, but the purpose of this over-performance seems merely to be comic entertainment, no critique of Russell or Hepburn implied.

After her initial encounter with Barnes, Archer becomes convinced that Barnes is an “imbecile,” and the Argus runs her story to that effect on its front page, with the banner headline “Imbecile Heads Hudsucker.” Then we actually see Barnes himself reading this story—in the December 15, 1958 edition of the newspaper. Such precision in the dating of the events of the film seems to locate it at a very specific moment in history. But the date displayed on the paper means that the rest of the action leading up to Barnes’ near-suicide all takes place in just sixteen days. This action includes, among other things, the final design, testing, manufacture, distribution, and rise to sales success of the Hula Hoop (after a slow start), accompanied by a meteoric rise in Hudsucker stock. The company then again begins to falter as sales flatten and Barnes fails to come up with his next big idea, offering Mussburger and his minions the opportunity to oust Barnes by having him declared insane, leading to the suicide attempt that begins the film. But all of these events clearly could not take place in a mere sixteen days, and the actual Hula Hoop, while in fact introduced in 1958 as in the film, was already a huge hit in July of 1958. Time and again, this film treats viewers to realistic-seeming details, only to undermine that realism with clearly unrealistic details.

That such aberrant details involve real historical events (such as the introduction of the Hula Hoop) only adds to the sense that this film is taking place not in the real New York, but in some sort of alternate reality version of New York. The numerous shots of the city and its skyline look somewhat like New York, but it’s an art deco New York with a German Expressionist tinge, filtered through the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer, with nods to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a film that also has many thematic points of connection with The Hudsucker Proxy. Indeed, like so many of the Coen Brothers films, The Hudsucker Proxy clearly does take place in an alternate reality—the “reality” of film, and especially of Golden Age Hollywood. For example, one might expect the crucial role of newspapers in the story to add an air of verisimilitude, given that newspapers supposedly contain accurate representations of real events—or were at least still seen that way in 1958. Of course, most viewers will probably know that the Manhattan Argus is not a real newspaper[2], but what is more to the point is that the entire newspaper motif in The Hudsucker Proxy refers not to the world of real print journalism, but to the worlds of the great newspaper films of the past, a phenomenon that not only spans the screwball comedy from It Happened One Night (1934) to His Girl Friday, but also memorably includes Citizen Kane (1941). That such films were at their peak approximately two decades prior to the action of The Hudsucker Proxy only serves further to destabilize any sense that the film is set in the “real” 1950s. Importantly, though, the film is set, not in one alternate reality, but in several, because the film draws upon a number of different cinematic worlds, producing a mishmash of elements that don’t quite fit together, thus increasing the sense that the whole film is slightly (but delightfully) askew. John Harkness captures this aspect of the film nicely when he notes that “Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story, and never should that twain meet, especially not in a world that seems to have been created by Fritz Lang.”[3] (126-27).

Some critics have felt that The Hudsucker Proxy overdoes its engagement with Golden Age Hollywood, but excess and artificiality are the principal modes of The Hudsucker Proxy—as is perhaps appropriate for any film that is centrally about consumer capitalism, which thrives on excess and artificiality above all else. For example, all of the characters in The Hudsucker Proxy are, in fact, caricatures, and all of the fine actors who play them overplay them. In his review upon the initial release of the film (written as a dialogue between an angel who loved the film and a devil who hated it), Ebert (as the devil) complains that “the performances are deliberately angled as satire.” But, then, as the angel, he responds, “But those performances are right on target.” And indeed they are. Leigh’s performance is self-consciously mannered to the point that it becomes not a parody of Russell, but of itself; it is also one of the highlights of the film. Similarly, Newman’s Mussburger, the ultimate corporate conniver, is excessively evil—or at least excessively open about how evil he is, which seems both appropriate and inappropriate to the backstabbing businessman that he is. And True’s histrionic Buzz is perhaps the most over-the-top character of all, seemingly compounded from a combination of Jerry Lewis’s antic bell boy and every elevator operator who ever appeared in the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Robbins also plays Barnes as an over-the-top character. In particular, he is a sort of idiot savant, unable to understand almost anything going on around him in the world of corporate intrigue, but also occasionally able to come up with ideas that are brilliantly successful, even if the simplicity of such products as the Hula Hoop perhaps tells us more about the ability of the capitalist system to manipulate consumers into desiring its products than about the genius of the products themselves. The fact that, by the end of the film, he also comes up with another brilliant idea (the Frisbee) might also be read in this way, though the fact that both of his inventions are based on the idea of the circle also resonates with a circular motif (the clock, the coffee stain, and so on) that runs throughout the film—as well as other Coen Brothers films, such as Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There—suggestsa greater significance. Circles, after all, carry with them a number of mystic resonances and have b een given special significance in many systems of thought over the centuries.

Despite this seeming mysteriousness, the circle is also one of the shapes that we encounter most often in everyday life, which makes it easy for the Coens to populate their film with circles of various kinds, while also suggesting that there is something special about some of the circles. This circle motif becomes most visually effective in one particular scene in which an irate toy-store owner, frustrated at his inability to sell the new product upon its initial release, angrily tosses his stock of Hula Hoops into an alley. One of the hoops, however, escapes the alley and rolls down the sidewalk, powered by its own momentum, though in a way that perhaps violates the laws of physics. It then takes an extensive trip down the sidewalk until it encounters a young boy who picks it up and starts to use it, attracting a crowd of other kids who then rush off to buy Hula Hoops of their own. And the rest is history, or at least alternate history. Meanwhile, this motif of the hoop moving along the sidewalk on its own steam recalls nothing more than the famous blowing (circular) hat from Miller’s Crossing (1990), a film the Coens had made just a few years before.

In the hands of the Coens, of course, such “profound” symbolism is not to be taken entirely seriously. Indeed, the devil in Ebert’s review claims that The Hudsucker Proxy is all style and no substance and that the film never even attempts to take itself seriously. Thus, the other references to the mythological or supernatural in The Hudsucker Proxy cannot be taken entirely seriously, either—which is not to say that they have no significance whatsoever. The Hudsucker Proxy veers into the realm of the mythological/supernatural largely in a tongue-in-cheek manner intended primarily for entertainment. But such references can also be taken as part of a general quest for materials that go beyond the normal—and as part of the Coens’ continual insistence that the world is richer and stranger than it might first appear to be.

For example, the clock keeper Moses turns out to be a sort of guardian angel who has the power to manipulate time itself (or at least the clock has this power), and he ultimately intercedes to save Barnes when he does, in fact, plummet from that ledge—though accidentally, and with an assist from a mysterious, malevolent-looking janitor/ sign painter named Aloysius (Harry Bugin). Aloysius, meanwhile, looms in the margins throughout the film, becoming particularly visible when he changes the name painted on the door of the president’s office whenever the former president dies or is deposed. This function makes it appear that Aloysius is a sort of angel of death/grim reaper figure, a suspicion that is verified late in the film when he battles with Moses in an attempt to prevent the latter from saving Barnes as he falls toward what appears to be certain death. After all, where there is a figure of supernatural good, the demands of plotting almost require that there must be a figure of supernatural evil. But both of these opposed supernatural figures seem far too pedestrian to be truly supernatural; they function more as highly cinematic plot devices than as real characters—and jokey ones at that.

Moses, meanwhile, is a clear example of the “magical Negro,” a type of problematic character identified (and named) by African American filmmaker Spike Lee in 2001 to indicate black characters (typically with supernatural powers, or at least special folksy wisdom) whose only purpose in a film is to provide help and support to the (more important) white characters. Complaining specifically of then recent films such as The Green Mile (1999) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Lee argued that such roles promulgated harmful clichés by suggesting that black people have no bigger concerns than to be helpful to white people, thus reproducing longtime problematic stereotypes: “They’re still doing the same old thing … recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.”[4] Of course, the Coens, in 1994, could not have been aware of Lee’s comments, but they were probably aware that Moses is a rather stereotypical character. Then again, all of the characters of The Hudsucker Proxy are movie clichés of one kind or another, self-consciously borrowed from any number of other films. That the Coens chose not to critique, or even acknowledge this particular cliché is not surprising, given that the Coens here (and in most of their other films) choose not to engage in any sort of critical dialogue with their numerous cinematic sources, but simply to mimic those sources without comment.

This sort of mimicry without comment is the very essence of the technique of pastiche, which is so central to the work of the Coen Brothers. Todd McCarthy, in the entertainment industry newspaper Variety, praised the technical accomplishments of The Hudsucker Proxy, calling the film “one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood.” At the same time, much in the same spirit as Ebert’s “devil,” McCarthy found this flashy technical accomplishment lacking in substance: “But a pastiche it remains, as nearly everything in the Coen brothers’ latest and biggest film seems like a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.”

In a similar fashion, at the level of content, The Hudsucker Proxy is first and foremost a satire aimed at capitalist greed, but this satire is so whimsical that it almost seems to poke fun at the very idea of satirizing capitalism. Granted, at least one reviewer, James Berardinelli, found the film’s satire of capitalism to be quite effective:

The Hudsucker Proxy skewers Big Business on the same shaft that Robert Altman ran Hollywood through with The Player. From the Brazil-like scenes in the cavernous mail room to the convoluted machinations in the board room, this film is pure satire of the nastiest and most enjoyable sort. In this surreal world of 1958 can be found many of the issues confronting large corporations in the 1990s, all twisted to match the filmmakers’ vision.

“Twisted to match the filmmaker’ vision” is an important caveat, however, because the vision of the Coens in The Hudsucker Proxy simply does not include any serious attempt to critique capitalism as a system.

Granted, many aspects of The Hudsucker Proxy seem specifically designed to trigger political interpretations. After all, the basic plot is all about capitalist greed and about how the capitalist system can seduce even the most innocent into participating in this greed, though ultimately leaving them unfulfilled, no matter how much money they make. Even the Hudsucker Building itself seems designed as a sort of allegory of class inequality, with the towering structure indicating the vast gap between the grim basement (where the lowliest workers, including those in the mailroom, toil endlessly) and the posh top floor, where bloated executives loll about in luxury. The division is very reminiscent of the one in Metropolis, where manual laborers stoke hellish boilers far below ground, while executives lounge in comfort many floors above them in a towering structure whose architecture in fact would have been right at home in the New York of The Hudsucker Proxy.

Indeed, this comparison points to precisely the reason why The Hudsucker Proxy is not particularly effective as an anticapitalist satire (apart from the fact that it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know). And that reason is that every aspect of the film is simply too much like something from a movie to serve as a truly effective commentary on political reality. In the hands of a more political filmmaker, such as Orson Welles (or Capra, or Altman), the principal materials of The Hudsucker Proxy could no doubt have been molded into an effective commentary on the corruption and inequality that drive the capitalist system, and possibly on the manipulation of gullible consumers that feeds it. But the Coens are not political filmmakers in this way. For example, when an interviewer asked Joel about the obvious commentary in The Hudsucker Proxy on the opposition between capitalists and workers, he simply responded, “Maybe the characters do embody those grand themes you mentioned, but that question is independent of whether or not we’re interested in them—and we’re not.”[5]

Despite the chronological and satirical similarities between The Hudsucker Proxy and The Player (released only two years earlier), the presiding spirit of The Hudsucker Proxy (as in much of the Coens’ work) is not Altman but Sturges, who spoke up for the little man for sure, but mostly by offering him entertainment that would help him more comfortably suffer the hardships of life in the modern world, rather than urging him to take action to bring those troubles to a just end through political means. Much of the plot of The Hudsucker Proxy, for example, resembles that of Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940), in which lowly office worker Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) seemingly strikes it rich via success in the capitalist system, only to discover that he has been the butt of a practical joke. MacDonald, however, ultimately succeeds anyway, just as Barnes ultimately winds up on top in The Hudsucker Proxy.

However, as would even more obviously be the case in the later O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Sturges film to which the Coens owe the most fundamental spiritual debt in Hudsucker is Sullivan’s Travels (1941). In this film, movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides that, in view of the suffering of the poor during Great Depression, the light comedies he has been making are irresponsible. As a result, he vows to start making more politically engaged films, in order to help the downtrodden understand their position, and perhaps change it. He himself envisions making a film that will seriously explore the plight of the Depression-era poor, a plight he then sets out to research and experience first-hand. Numerous misadventures ensue, but the gist of it all is that Sullivan concludes from his travels that the poor don’t need films that remind them of their misery; instead, he decides that they need comedies that will lift them above their misery, if only for an hour or two—and resolves to continue making such films.

In The Hudsucker Proxy the Coens seem to be doing very much the same thing as Sullivan, except that the political intimations of the film potentially threaten to blunt the comedy. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Ebert’s “devil” also complained about all the references to screwball comedy in Hudsucker, arguing that “screwball comedy needs a certain looseness, an anarchic spirit that’s alien to the meticulous productions of the Coen Brothers.” Of course, the very structure of his review suggests that Ebert only half agrees with this assessment, and it is certainly relevant that the relationship of Sturges to screwball comedy is also debatable: it is clear that his films push the boundaries of the screwball comedy if they are screwball comedies at all. Recognizing the fundamental spiritual compatibility of The Hudsucker Proxy with films such as Sullivan’s Travels thus provides a sort of commentary on the Coens’ own complex relationship with screwball comedy—and with film genre in general.

Intolerable Cruelty: Till Divorce Do Us Part

Intolerable Cruelty is probably the Coen Brothers film that belongs most comfortably within the generic confines of screwball comedy, which might help to explain why it is not one of their most successful films. The best Coen Brothers films tend not to reside comfortably within any one genre but to span several. Even Intolerable Cruelty, though, approaches its genre in a rather oblique manner, partly because it is so thoroughly situated, not in the 1930s, where the genre is most at home, but in the early-twenty-first-century context in which the film was made and in which its action takes place. The esteemed film critic Roger Ebert captures this aspect of the film well when he declares that Intolerable Cruelty is definitely “in” the genre of screwball comedy, “but somehow not of it. The Coens sometimes have a way of standing to one side of their work: It’s the puppet and they’re the ventriloquists. The puppet is sincere, but the puppetmaster is wagging his eyebrows at the audience and asking, can you believe this stuff?”[6]

One problem with Intolerable Cruelty is that it never quite feels like a Coen Brothers film, perhaps because it was the first film they directed that was not originally conceived by them—though it also has the distinction (thanks to changes in the rules of the Directors’ Guild of America) of being the first film officially to list both Joel and Ethan as directors. After The Man Who Wasn’t There,the Coens spent considerable time and energy trying to come up with a script and funding for an ambitious film to be entitled To the White Sea, about an American airman who is shot down over Japan in World War II and then struggles to evade capture and make his way back home.[7] The script (based on a novel by James Dickey) materialized, but the funding didn’t, and the project was shelved, leaving the Coens without a film in the immediate pipeline. So, offered the chance to make Intolerable Cruelty,the Coens accepted (after, of course reworking the original script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone).

Intolerable Cruelty satirizes contemporary California divorce culture, in which love, marriage, and divorce among the wealthier denizens of Los Angeles become part of a grasping and cynical game of cyclical cat-and-mouse in which couples meet, jostle for advantage, and then break up, each having extracted as much profit—sexual, financial, or otherwise—as possible before moving on to the next encounter. In the film’s satirical presentation of this culture, men enter marital relationships mostly just to establish sexual control of younger, more attractive women, while protecting as many of their financial assets as possible; these women, meanwhile, enter the relationships strictly for financial gain—both during and after the marriage. This adversarial situation, of course, admits severe impediments to the marriage of true minds, especially when those minds belong to a predatory golddigger (Marylin Rexroth, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a cutthroat divorce attorney (Miles Massey, played by George Clooney), both of whom have made careers out of exploiting the marriage-and-divorce game. It doesn’t help that, in their first encounter, Marylin and Miles are direct adversaries in a divorce case in which Miles (as the attorney for Marylin’s philandering husband) wins a smashing victory, leaving Marylin virtually penniless. The rest of the plot is driven by Marylin’s elaborate plan to get revenge (and get rich) by fraudulently seducing (then divorcing) Miles, which does not make their romantic prospects seem promising.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) Directed by Joel Coen Shown: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Anything is possible in screwball comic romances, however. On the other hand, this is a film that makes us want for the two leads to wind up together, but not care too much if they don’t. As it happens, they do wind up together (after the requisite series of twists and turns), but then we don’t care much about that either. The whole enterprise is highly entertaining and extremely funny, even if some of its funniest moments are probably in bad taste—like the hit man who confuses his pistol with his asthma inhaler and accidentally blows his brains out. Part of the problem, of course, is that neither Miles nor Marylin is very nice, even though both Clooney and Zeta-Jones exude charisma and look great—she particularly lights up the screen with her beauty and it is easy to see why Miles is so mesmerized whenever he sees her. Ebert’s review, in fact, describes her beauty in this film as one of the great examples of feminine beauty in film history. Much of the chemistry between the two characters, though, comes from the admiration of each for the other’s conniving ruthlessness, and one of the reasons why the film’s happy ending doesn’t deliver much emotional payload is that it is hard to believe that a match between two such characters will really last. In fact, the ending resolution between Miles and Marylin comes amid a swirl of final twists in which almost all of the wronged characters in the film suddenly come out on top, a swirl so sudden that it seems forced and artificial. As a result, this happy ending feels more like a parody of a happy ending than like the genuinely happy endings of the classic screwball comedies from which the film draws so much spiritual inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong: Intolerable Cruelty is endlessly entertaining and eminently watchable—though probably not as rewatchable as the very best Coen films. In a gushing review in Empire magazine, Damon Wise might have inadvertently touched on the reason why this is not one of the very best Coen films when he declared that the newly-released film was sure to be a box-office smash:

Unabashedly commercial, crowd-tickling stuff, this dazzling screwball comedy—following proudly in the footsteps of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder—stars George Clooney at his most charming and Catherine Zeta-Jones doing what she does best (however little that is) in an immediately accessible story about avarice, divorce and love, in that order. Tight as a drum, glamorous and exquisitely funny, this one should earn them enough cash to make five more offbeat minor masterpieces like The Man Who Wasn’t There—and the Coens deserve that as much as we do.[8]

This description of the film is fairly accurate (though it might undersell the multiple talents of Zeta-Jones, a gifted musical stage performer, among other things). The film does look relatively mainstream, lacking the usual offbeat visual flair of the Coens’ films. And the subject matter is relatively commercial as well—much more so than, say a film noir set in Texas or a film about a leftist screenwriter on the eve of World War II. Wise was wrong about one thing, though: the film did not do especially well at the U.S. box office, taking in a mere $35 million in domestic receipts. The reason for this surprisingly modest return is probably that Intolerable Cruelty is still too much like a Coen film to be a box-office smash, though it is also too mainstream commercial to be among the best efforts of the Coens, who thrive on eccentric effects outside the Hollywood mainstream (while nevertheless keeping a toe dipped in the waters of that stream).

Interestingly enough, though, Intolerable Cruelty did ultimately manage to be a commercial success (though still not an absolute blockbuster) thanks to an international box-office take of nearly $85 million. Meanwhile, that a film so rooted in the contemporary culture of Los Angeles and so closely attached to the American screwball comedy tradition should take in well over twice as much in box-office receipts abroad as at home is probably telling. The Coens are filmmakers whose films are, in general, more thoroughly rooted in various American cultural traditions than are those of almost any other filmmaker. Yet there is something vaguely European about the Coens’ sensibilities as well—a fact that perhaps accounts for Barton Fink’s Palme d’Or or for the fact that the Coens were selected to make one of the eighteen short films that are included in the anthology Paris je t’aime (2006)—which is, as the name implies, a sort of love letter to the city of Paris.[9] Still, despite the skewing of its box office numbers, Intolerable Cruelty is one of the most American of the Coens’ films. One might say the same for The Hudsucker Proxy, which perhaps says something about the Americanness of the screwball comedy as a genre.

Notes


[1] Booker, Historical Dictionary, p. 330.

[2] There was, however, a newspaper called The Daily Argus that was published in Westchester County (just north of New York City) from 1892 to 1994.

[3] Harkness, pp. 126-27.

[4] Quoted in Gonzalez.

[5] Cited in Bergan, p. 36.

[6] Ebert, “Intolerable Cruelty.”

[7] This project was part of the genesis of the script for the 2014 downed-pilot World War II film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie and scripted by the Coens, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson.

[8] See Wise.

[9] Ian Nathan also quotes Joel Coen to the effect that the brothers grew up watching lots of British movies, due to the tastes of their father, how had grown up in England.