Okay, How Intolerable?

In which Norm spins up the Coens' LADYKILLERS and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, because why not.

Okay, How Intolerable?

This Tuesday, Criterion released a 4K upgrade of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple, bringing the number of the brothers’ films available in Ultra High Definition up to a whopping three. (It was one until Shout’s picture-perfect release of Fargo this past November, and I’m as horrified as you are.)

I’m still waiting on Criterion’s January mailing, so I have yet to see the upgrade – I do have the Blu-ray, and it’s very nice – but I have spent some time with the brothers’ work in recent days, catching up to The Ladykillers on DVD and Intolerable Cruelty on Blu.

Kate and I had tried to run the entire Coen filmography last winter, which was a fine excuse to revisit a decade and a half of really great cinema, but the project stalled out when it came time to watch The Ladykillers because, well, I hate it and I kept finding other things to watch instead. (I, um, also mixed up the release dates and thought Intolerable Cruelty came afterward, rather than before. It was a rough winter.)

Have you seen The Ladykillers? You can still rent or buy it on most VOD services, but it was quietly removed from Disney+ last fall and it’s never been released on Blu-ray. The fact that I still own the DVD of a movie I actively despise is perhaps the perfect explanation of my own compulsive nature.

And I do despise The Ladykillers. I think it’s easily their worst picture – a remake that actively sells out its source material so it can refashion it into a cavalcade of grotesqueries, relocating the story to the Deep South so the band of criminals comes into conflict with not just a generic little old lady but a sturdy God-fearing Black church lady, played by Irma P. Hall as a stereotype that pushes right up to the edge of racist caricature. One of the crooks is played by Marlon Wayans at an even higher level of caricature, presumably for balance.

I think the Coens believed they were employing these stereotypes ironically, maybe even commenting on them; I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse, and in any case they absolutely did not pull it off. The project started as a screenwriting job for their old pal Barry Sonnenfeld, and they took it on once he departed the project, which might explain why the film’s excesses are so … excessive. But it’s also just a joyless, logy march through material that should be lighter than air, dressed up with a cockeyed mock-seriousness that feels even more out of place when juxtaposed with the joyous gospel sequences that have nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie.

It’s bad, is what I’m saying, and no amount of Tom Hanks fuffering around in false teeth and a ridiculous demeanor is going to save it – nor J.K. Simmons doing his best hail-fellow-well-met idiot, nor Tzi Ma as a no-nonsense demolitions expert, nor a very young Aldis Hodge (above!) as Doughnut Gangster #1. I’d love to know what kind of movie he thought he’d been cast in.

Intolerable Cruelty, on the other hand, holds up just fine. A classic Joel-and-Ethan mess-around in the Raising Arizona and O Brother vein, it’s a delightful screwball farce with George Clooney as Miles Massey, L.A.’s best divorce attorney – author of the Massey Pre-Nup, revered by lawyers across America – and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Marylin [sic] Rexroth, a wronged wife whose suit against her philandering doofus of a husband (Edward Herrmann) lands her on the other side of the table from Miles. Sparks fly immediately, and the two thereafter torment one another in and out court – and in and out of wedlock – with no end of ridiculous complications, including a pair of very enthusiastic Rottweilers and a freelance assassin called Wheezy Joe, for obvious reasons.

Propelled by one of Clooney’s finest comic performances as the vainglorious Miles, with Zeta-Jones parrying his every attempted thrust and both of them surrounded by a magnificent supporting cast who all understand the assignment – among them Paul Adelstein, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer, Geoffrey Rush, Julia Duffy, Stacey Travis and a magnificently hapless Richard Jenkins – it’s an absolute pip of a picture, as fleet and funny where The Ladykillers is lead-footed and dour. I mean, look at what Herrmann’s doing here, just look at it:

Gold, I tell you. This little vignette, in which Miles leafs through a copy of Living Without Intestines Magazine in the waiting room of his decrepit boss and then has to pretend he hasn't seen what he's seen, is also low-key brilliance:

The fact that both films opened within six months of one another – Intolerable Cruelty in October 2003 after premiering in Venice the previous month, The Ladykillers in March 2004 – makes for a fascinating footnote. Another fascinating footnote: Intolerable Cruelty also started out as a rewrite job for the Coens, with Ron Howard directing and Jonathan Demme stepping in after Howard left. Now, of course, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making either of these films, even if I can’t abide one of them, hand to God.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Next up are No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, with which I also have a love-loathe relationship. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Ladykillers is available on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment; Intolerable Cruelty is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. You might also want to seek out the StudioCanal restoration of the original Ladykillers, released in North America by Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

In this weekend’s paid edition: What is best in life? To watch the Conan movies in 4K, that’s what. Upgrade that subscription so you don’t miss out!

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