You’d think the Coen Brothers and romantic comedy would go together like celebrities and the Walmart clearance rack; neither are made for each other and the combination isn’t doing anyone any favors.
Nevertheless, Intolerable Cruelty opened in 2003 to relatively positive reviews, a healthy payout for the film’s financiers, and 15 years later our clients are still referencing it.
The time has come to answer your question once and for all: No, this movie does not accurately represent any family law practice, in Renton, western Washington, or anywhere in America.
The hotshot lawyer: a character who wins huge divorce settlements for felons
The movie opens with a divorce between a rich TV producer and his wife. A quick flashback lets us know this all started when, upon catching his wife in the act of adultery, the TV producer’s wife stabs him with his Daytime Emmy and runs off.
What this “comedic” scene really does is introduce Miles Massey, played by BLW-favorite George Clooney, as an A-list divorce attorney famous for his foolproof “Massey prenup.”
In fact, he’s so good at lawyering that he wins a gigantic divorce settlement for the assaulting adulterer and bankrupts the wealthy TV producer.
So pretty much right from the beginning, the film’s writers let you know how they view family law.
The career golddigger: another character with no basis in reality
Marylin Rexroth, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is introduced as the yin to Massey’s yang and she’s just as ruthless as he is.
Viewers learn that Marylin married her husband in an elaborate scheme to “brazenly cuckold a man until such time as she might choose to hammer his fanny.”
Guess we skipped the part about that courtroom bombshell being delivered by a flamboyant concierge holding a purse dog on the witness stand.
This whole scene perfectly sums up what this movie gets wrong about the “law” of divorces. Criminal court is about proving a crime has been committed, family law is about a group of people coming together to agree on how to function together, or separately.
And everyone knows dogs aren’t allowed on the witness stand.
Act two: true love is throwing legal advice to the wind
The next time we see Marylin, she’s standing in Massey’s doorway begging for one of his infamous prenuptial agreements. She’s found herself an oil tycoon fiancé and wants to prove that her gold-digging days are behind her.
After a stirring monologue about how Massey’s prenups protect the wealthier spouse’s assets -- no matter what the circumstances of the divorce may be -- Marylin convinces her fiancé she wants to sign it...
Which he literally eats dipped in BBQ sauce on their wedding day as a show of commitment.
Aside from how irritating it is to see family law oversimplified to a system of contracts and rigid frameworks that protect the side with better lawyers -- we spend a lot of time drawing up those documents, please don’t eat them.
Massey has a BBQ-inspired change of heart
Riding high on optimism and a newfound faith in love, Miles announces he is going pro bono at a Vegas family lawyer’s convention. In the very next scene, he learns Marylin has divorced the oil tycoon and they elope.
Massey’s speech about “cruel” divorce attorneys who prey on fear was inspired by Marylin’s marriage, so we’re not exactly sure why he’s so happy about her divorce. But who needs coherent plot devices when you’ve got A-list celebrities running around Vegas?!
For Marylin’s third wedding of the film, she’s the one to tear up the prenup after Massey signs one of his agreements to prove their marriage isn’t about the fortune she recently acquired from her divorce with the oil tycoon.
It’s as though the Coen Brothers think that destroying prenups is some sort of ritualistic sacrifice to bless your union instead of a legal division of property.
SPOILER ALERT: what follows is impossible, legally speaking
Intolerable Cruelty’s third act throws whatever shred of accuracy remaining out the window. How? By revealing that the oil tycoon was actually just an actor from one of the wealthy TV producer’s shows.
Marylin hired him to trick Massey into entering a marriage without a prenup. The oil tycoon’s fortune was just as fictional as his character, and Marylin is actually the poorer spouse in her most recent legal union.
Nevermind that a prenup based on fictional assets is totally invalid -- there are more zany twists to come!
Before she can divorce him and run off with his riches, Marylin inherits a large sum of money after the husband she divorced in Act One passes away.
Happily ever prenupped
In the end, the TV producer regains his fortune after pitching America's Funniest Divorce Videos and the Cloonster and Zeta-Jones fade to black signing a Massey-patented prenup -- this time for real.
So...what did we learn about family law from the Coen Brothers?
Aside from never trust a groom who eats paper as a wedding gift, the most coherent lesson seems to be: Don’t hold legal documents hostage as a show of affection. Just be the best spouse you can and leave the rest to the lawyers.