“The first thing we do,” announces Dick the Butcher in Act IV, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, “is kill all the lawyers.” Approximately four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, this pithy phrase has become one of his most famous witticisms, appropriated often to disparage the legal profession, or at least acknowledge the unfortunate social archetype of the crooked, or even overpriced, counselor. The context in which Dick utters this phrase, though, is key to understanding its true meaning, and Shakespeare’s intent. Dick is a villainous character who wants to eradicate society of the very defenders of justice who could both stop the revolt he intends to help spur and remove the power he hopes to usurp. The strange quote acknowledges, therefore, that society could not exist in a state of fairness and peace without the protectiveness of both the law and its staunch guardians. One possible reading of this quote is that Shakespeare was insisting that the lawyers were the most fundamental defense against the grossest manifestations of power-hungry antics wrought by the scum of humanity. Context, you know, is everything.
The 2003 film Intolerable Cruelty, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (from a script they co-wrote with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone), presents its own memorable take on lawyers. They are either powerful, smooth-talking spin-doctors who are legendary for winning cases or establishing legal precedents, or slower-paced and over-emotional (perhaps over-thoughtful) representatives who are never able to beat the first sort. The lawyers in this film, all based in or near Beverly Hills, are either part of the wealthy, plastic community or sad-sack outsiders. While law, as a profession, facilitates the bulk of the plot, it does not distinguish its so-called champions from an environment in which everyone is entitled and self-centered.
I’m not going to say that Intolerable Cruelty is anywhere near the Coen Brothers’ best film. I’m not even going to say that Intolerable Cruelty is a film I particularly, personally enjoy. But I do find the film very interesting. I find all the Coen Brothers’ films interesting. But Intolerable Cruelty, an aggressive, revenge-obsessed screwball comedy and pillory for the apparent vapidity of Beverly Hills, features some of the most fascinating choices in their whole oeuvre, I daresay. And what makes Intolerable Cruelty so especially interesting is that, in its central love story, it makes an argument about the exploitative nature of the rich and powerful by representing how such individuals use, of all things, poetry.
According to Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, “Music is the food of love,” and in As You Like It, “lovers are given to poetry.” The Coen Brothers know this. Poetry and music are on the altar here, offer the most dramatic protestations, and are sacrificed in the process. Yes, when characters attempt to convey depth, they quote from sources historically reputed to have depth, appropriating beautiful phrases and poetic evocations not for their true meanings but for the emotional punches they apparently pack. These rich and powerful characters change the situations and even the rhetoric of quotes to suit their own worldviews and goals, warping beautiful things for their own convenience, instead of understanding that their disruptions change the significance and remove the beauty of such things, in the first place.
Intolerable Cruelty offers a sparse (but effective) historical cross-section of what poetry even is, in the first place; the writers who have their words twisted and turned into cannon fodder are William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and, jumping ahead a few centuries, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
I’ll get to the plot summary in a moment, but bear with me for a little longer. Let me describe to you the strange opening scene, and you’ll see what I’m getting at. Picture this. A Jaguar races down a shady, tree-lined street in sunny Los Angeles. A ponytailed Geoffrey Rush is at the wheel, singing along to his stereo, loudly and off-key. “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told,” he bleats. He is louder than the song itself, the Simon and Garfunkel track “The Boxer” playing diegetically through his car speakers. He continues, “I have squandered my resistance on a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises.”
At face value, there is nothing strange about beginning a film with the evocation of such a weighty metaphor. But the strangeness of the presence of this song lies in the relationship between the audio heard and the visuals with which it is paired. Let’s slo-mo it: a cheesy-looking middle-aged man in an expensive-looking summer suit speeding along in a pristine luxury car down a palm tree-lined street in Beverly Hills, belting the lyrics to “The Boxer,” a sad and contemplative song about the fears of selling out, wasting one’s potential, and struggling with low income, as well as the pointless trials underwent by underdogs, and the resilience to persevere in an unforgiving and commercial world. The song, with its choirboy vocals, dripping acoustic guitar strums, and 1960s-era sounding refrain (consisting of variations on the sound “la”), not to mention resolute setting in New York City during an unforgiving winter, makes it certainly an out-of-place score to this distinctly sunny and affluent space.What makes Intolerable Cruelty so especially interesting is that, in its central love story, it makes an argument about the exploitative nature of the rich and powerful by representing how such individuals use, of all things, poetry.
And it is just as out-of-place in the following scene, in which the man, Donovan Donaly, who we find out is a soap opera producer anointed with a Daytime Emmy, pulls up in the driveway of his villa only to discover that his wife, Bonnie, is cheating on him with a young man selling pool cleaner. “The Boxer” fades out during most of the shouted accusations as well as during Donovan’s attempts to shoot his pistol at his guilty wife. But it comes back during the scene’s climax, after Bonnie has stabbed Donovan in the backside with his own Daytime Emmy, and hopped into his car to drive away.
As Donovan screams at her, “That’s my Jag! That’s my Jag! That’s my bloody Jag! You bitch! Bitch! Bitch!,” punctuating each shout with a fire of his pistol in her direction, “The Boxer” starts playing again, this time from the car stereo as Bonnie revs up the engine to make her getaway. The unlikely pairing of “The Boxer” with the rest of this scene reinforces, if nothing else, the comparative shallowness of the environment the remainder of the film will present, and the curious presumption of these characters, who purport to appreciate works of art even when inserting them into improper or nonsensical contexts.
There are four Simon and Garfunkel songs in Intolerable Cruelty—a humorous soundtrack choice, given the group’s close cinematic relationship with Mike Nichol’s 1967 film The Graduate, having created its soundtrack. The Graduate explores themes similar to “The Boxer”—particularly the fear of “plastics,” and shallow, overly capitalist environments (the very environments that sprawl in Intolerable Cruelty). Not to mention, The Graduate is about the complexities of human emotional relationships and Intolerable Cruelty represents them as being rather simple. This makes the tone all the more knowing, all the more wry.
Right, so, the urban dirge “The Boxer” opens the film, the rainy “April Come She Will” plays during a wedding, as does the quirky “Punky’s Dilemma.” The ballad “Bridge Over Troubled Water” plays at a second wedding, in a scene later on. And all four of these songs will be reproduced in this film as inferior versions—the first is “The Boxer,” which is immediately forced to become a garbled version of a tragic song that a character transforms in a subtle attempt to justify the act of selling out, and the soundtrack to a tawdry divorce.
Donovan disappears from the movie at this point, until almost the very end. Most of Intolerable Cruelty is about the war between two people, the reigning king of divorce law, Miles Massey (George Clooney), and a sultry black widow, Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of Miles’s client in their divorce suit, Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann). Though Miles is representing her husband and therefore is her opponent, Miles, rapt by her beauty and intelligence, asks her to dinner. They each find their perfect matches in the other, and behave competitively, showing off to impress the other. At the restaurant, he flirts, “Your husband had told me you were the most beautiful woman that he’d ever met. I didn’t expect the most beautiful woman I’d ever met.”
Marilyn, smiling sideways, responds with an eloquent quote from Shakespeare’s long poem Venus and Adonis, which is about the goddess of love falling in love with a handsome youth who is not interested in her advances because he prefers to hunt instead. “Dismiss your vows, your feigned tears, your flattery; for where a heart is hard they make no battery.” Marilyn appropriates Adonis’s line to Venus, in which he begs her to leave him alone, to one-up Miles’s flirtation. In doing so, she flirts more eloquently than he, and simultaneously shoots down his romantic compliment. Miles one-ups her back, quoting from Shakespeare’s literary competitor, Christopher Marlowe, with a pithy line from Hero and Leander, about two lovers who overcame the river and gigantic tower that separated them, “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” With this quote, Miles wins this tiny contest, and they proceed to banter more bitterly in modern vernacular English. This scene reflects the ease with which both characters wield poetry for their own satisfaction in impressing one another.
Marilyn and Miles also use the same quotes for their own satisfaction in wounding one another, later on. In the courtroom scene during Marilyn and Rex’s divorce trial a few months later, to win his side of the case, Miles quotes Marilyn’s previous Shakespeare quote. Miles knows that she, simpering and crying while she is on the stand, is faking devastation to appeal to the jury and win the case, so he, longing to defeat, shock, and impress her, accuses her of the same over-emotion she had previously uttered to him. “Dismiss your vows, your feigned tears, your flattery; for where a heart is hard they make no battery,” he tells her slyly, as she looks up from her tissues, nearly breaking character with her surprise. He eventually rephrases it, at the request of Marilyn’s lawyer. “Mrs. Rexroth, have you ever been in love?”
“Yes, of course,” she responds, wailing, “with Rex.” “And you’ve always loved him?” Miles asks. Marilyn’s gaze turns stony. “Whoever loved,” she retorts, quoting both Miles and Marlowe, “that loved not at first sight.” Here, they use the same poetic quotes they had used to impress and flirt with one another to hurt. Their understanding of the contexts or stories behind each quote is irrelevant—the quotes are malleable to their specific purposes. Though they do not change the poems, themselves, they change the new contexts in which they are presented, appropriating them into their own private language in which the words, themselves, are actually meaningless— but the using of another’s words transforms them into more powerful weapons. It is clear that Marilyn and Miles appreciate the poems more as devices that can augment one’s status in repartee, than based on their literary merits.
The Coen Brothers use the poetry of Shakespeare and Marlowe, both classic (nearly clichéd) literary authorities on the topic of passionate love, for wooing and warring, but they refer back to the more modern poetry of Simon and Garfunkel for marrying. Both “April Come She Will” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are wedding songs—not because the characters seem to have any appreciation for the band (aside from Donovan Donaly, and his appreciation for them is cursory and misguided), but because the band seems to serve a romantic cliché, similar to how Marlowe and Shakespeare function. They are all known to provide the expected romantic notes for certain romantic situations, so they are used in such contexts, even when their appropriations and reincarnations (ignorantly executed by the characters) are not actually romantic or even enjoyable to hear.
[Spoilers ahead]. The film proceeds as a battle between Miles and Marilyn. The film will take us to two weddings, both with Simon and Garfunkel soundtracks. Both weddings are cons—shams concocted by Marilyn, longing for revenge against Miles, who thwarted her chance of a vast alimony by defeating her in the Rexroth divorce case. “April Come She Will” is played on a guitar by a hippie of a preacher who sings the song rather poorly as he wanders down the aisle towards the altar, at the wedding between Marilyn and a man she assures everyone is an oil tycoon, Howard D. Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), but who is really an actor. Marilyn will fake-marry Howard, and then fake-divorce him, to appear to have made off with much of his fortune. Then, she will seduce Miles. She asks for a pre-nup between them, one of his famously ironclad ones, and he agrees, understanding that she wants to protect her apparent fortune. But, when they marry, she tears it up as a gesture of love and faith to him. He agrees, not realizing that what he has just allowed to be destroyed is his own protection of his own fortune against a penniless and vengeful person who plans to divorce him and take his money, as punishment.
Why is “April Come She Will” being played at a wedding? (I ask the same question of that one Parks and Recreation episode.) It’s a sad song. The woman leaves the guy at the end! “A love once new has now grown old!” But those lines have been removed! The song, which is about the many months the speaker spends loving a woman, from April to September, now only includes April to May, the months where she will “stay.” Marilyn has her con down to every last line.
During this same wedding scene, when Marilyn and Miles are discussing her inevitable plans to divorce Howard Doyle, Miles is distracted for a moment by a sound in the distance. It is the free-spirited pastor singing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s oddity “Punky’s Dilemma.” In the distance, the words, “Wish I was a Kellogg’s Cornflake, floatin’ in my bowl, takin’ movies” can be vaguely overheard. This song, written for The Graduate, seems to serve little purpose at this wedding, or in this film, except to momentarily distract Miles with its quirkiness. It seems likely that the Coen Brothers gave the song a cameo because they simply liked it. They do that kind of thing!
Then again, it might have some meaning? Maybe? The song, essentially making fun of the vague dreams of youth, is reduced to a cute distraction for the few seconds it can be overheard, but this is not the same as the butchering that the other Simon and Garfunkel songs have experienced. “Punky’s Dilemma” serves a nobler purpose, though, subtly calling to mind the impulsivity of the ending in The Graduate, in which Elaine Robinson is at her own wedding when she spirits away with the protagonist and then instantly regrets it. It’s possible. It’s also possible that it means nothing.
Anyway, the final time Simon and Garfunkel is played is at the wedding between Marilyn and Miles. She has succeeded in tricking Miles into agreeing to marry her, and they head to a chapel in Las Vegas, where Miles’s assistant, a fellow lawyer named Wrigley (Paul Adelstein), meets them and hands them all the necessary items for their wedding, including Miles’s personally designed pre-nup, and their wedding song. “The music,” he tells them quickly, unpacking the suitcase full of wedding essentials he has prepared, “is Simon and Garfunkel,” the way someone might brag about a label of fine wine. Only the best! Again, Simon and Garfunkel is expressed as necessary to romance, because its songs connote poetry and romance. Wrigley does not even mention the actual song he has selected; it does not matter—Simon and Garfunkel has become the band, or brand, for the occasion.
Poetry is homogenized in Intolerable Cruelty—all Simon and Garfunkel songs are treated the same, as are the lines from the respective Shakespeare and Marlowe poems, which are not even mentioned outside of their unnamed extracted materials. There is no distinguishing between Shakespeare and Marlowe either—the two quotes work well in dialogue, and become a new conversation, instead of representatives of two highly different bodies of work. In a way, Shakespeare and Marlowe are married in this film—but in the cruel way Marilyn defines marriage, as a lack of independence. Thus, the forms of poetry used by these conniving and superficial people are not only mashed together in both tonal similarities and ease of referencing, but also stuck to one another, smashed into a single entity.
Wrigley’s song choice turns out to be “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song appropriate for such an occasion, so, unlike “April Come She Will,” it needs no censoring of its dark bits to seem suitable. However, it is also being played on both the pipe organ and the bagpipes, and its melodic nature is practically indistinguishable, and its lyrics are unheard. (The song has to be played this way, in the first place, because Marilyn and Miles are marrying in a roadside chapel in Las Vegas run by a Scottish man who rents them kilts instead of tuxedos.) The evident impulsivity of their marriage (and Marilyn’s truly sly, long-term planning lurking underneath) has resulted in the transformation of an artistic work from beautiful to clunky and shrill, a jarring and awkward cacophony whose end will feel merciful.
The song, and its truly beautiful message, are sacrificed entirely for this second marriage, revealing that even unintentional appropriation in a plastic society (Las Vegas, this time) results in a reduction in beauty of the songs and lyrics with which people choose to surround themselves. The shallowness of this environment and its poor romantic situations are so dangerous, they have proven destructive to several works of art.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. “The Boxer” is the only song that plays in its original version. Though all four Simon and Garfunkel songs are sung or played diegetically by characters in the film, the opening shot of the film features Donovan singing along to the song. His own rendition sounds both drowned-out and mangled. And he also alters the words of his own version to suit his own devices, to fit his own worldview! He begins the third line of the first verse, “All lies in jest,” a few seconds before Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel do, and when he realizes his mistake, he pauses before they sing the next line, “still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” ignoring it and making an explosion sound with his mouth. His version satisfies his own whims. Here, he is the “Man” of which they sing—a figure literally hearing what he wants to hear and disregarding the rest, without realizing that he exists as their prediction and an archetype.
In the next shot, a few verses later, Donovan replaces a key phrase to the song’s message. “[Asking only workman’s wages, I come looking for a job but I get no offers] Just a come-on from the whores on Second Avenue,” plays the song. “I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.” In a line intended to stress the sadness of the speaker’s plight and his desperation for a valid connection, Donovan, though, switches out the word “whores” for the bouncy phrase “those gals,” turning the speaker’s tragic sell-out into a casual sexual encounter. He also adds a whoop of “WOO HOO” after “Avenue,” as if cheering on the more romantic impulse.
The thing is, Donovan himself will become a tremendous sell-out if he is not one already. After Bonnie is caught cheating, she hires the shark Miles to facilitate their divorce. Even though she is in the wrong, Miles is so good at divorces, that Donovan loses everything, except his Daytime Emmy, and is seen later sleeping on the sidewalk with it. He eventually becomes rich, again, when he partners up with Miles Massey, the very man who had brought him to ruin, to produce a new television show called “America’s Funniest Divorce Videos.”
He sells out to the man who had destroyed him, as well as profits from the misfortunes of others that are nearly identical to the misfortune that had previously befallen him. His adaptation of the song “The Boxer,” removing the speaker’s sad act of giving into the whores, and adding in a fun and sexy alternative, indicates his refusal to comprehends its entire identity, and his own—as indicated by his passionate rendition, he prefers “The Boxer” as a poetic-sounding song that can energize him without making him admit to the possibility that he has achieved his great success through lowbrow pandering or that, regarding his own love life, he has been seduced for his money, instead of being able to seduce someone else. If Miles Massey and Marilyn Rexroth appropriate pretty-sounding poetry for offense, Donovan does it for self-defense against his conscience.No one in the film, actually, is poetic independently. This is why they appropriate poetry—to gain a conversational, argumentative, or even emotional advantage.
The twisting and contortion of these songs at the hands of the wealthy and indifferent involves a performance component that reinforces this theme; as I’ve said, all of the song versions are bad! They are very unpleasant! They are not only appropriated in length, content, or intent—but sound. The characters who perform these songs, or who command the performances of these songs, are not as deep, emotionally, as the feelings they realize can be conveyed in such works. For example, after singing his part from “April Come She Will,” the pastor makes his own attempt at poetry, while officiating. “In today’s cynical world,” he says, “it is so hard to take that great leap of faith aboard the ship of love and caring.” This is hardly poetic. No one in the film, actually, is poetic independently.
This is why they appropriate poetry—to gain a conversational, argumentative, or even emotional advantage. Remember, when Donovan is outraged and sad that his wife has been cheating on him, he spurts forth an angry tirade solely consisting of repeating the phrase “You bitch!”—which is hardly as articulate as the song “The Boxer” that moves him so much in the previous scene. Appropriating quotes from, for example, Marlowe and Shakespeare, provides Marilyn and Miles the conversational edges they crave when speaking with one another. Marilyn and Miles are both extremely articulate but cannot outdo the other relying merely on their own wits. And they try! They speak in an intense, overdramatic style, as clearly and loudly and emotionally as if they are standing, un-mic’d, on a stage, and this is only exaggerated when they quote things, distorting the poetry as they turn it into prose.
Anyway, the characters in Intolerable Cruelty treat literature and music in the same fashion they treat everything else. They embody the culture of this superficial and affluent Beverly Hills society—where nothing is sacred, not even art, and not even marriage. Lawyers are presented as guard dogs for the rich, powerful and self-serving, while still being rich, powerful, and self-serving themselves. The manner in which art and marriage interact, at the hands of these characters, is even worse—the manipulation of art facilitates the manipulation of marriage. It is especially ironic, then, that music and poetry are the tools used to manipulate love in such a dark way, and particularly sad, then, that they lose their respective beauties through the process of being manipulated.
Perhaps, for the first time, the slower-paced and over-emotional (perhaps over-thoughtful) lawyer, Freddy Bender (Richard Jenkins), identifies this uncomfortable manipulation in the most efficient way. To the judge in the courtroom, during the Rexroth trial with the Shakespeare-spouting Miles, he calls out, “Objection” to Miles’s using a quote from a poem when interrogating Marilyn. “On what grounds?” the judge asks. Freddy pauses for a moment, pondering hard. “Um,” he says, trying to think of exactly how to phrase Miles’s off-color method, “Poetry recitation.”
Objectively, reciting poetry seems like a harmless thing to do in court—but Bender knows that, when it comes to lawyers such as Miles Massey, context, apparently, is everything.