Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Michael Asimow


Read other reviews:

Internet Movie Database

All Movie Guide

Readers comments



Shouldn't we criticize filmmakers who completely ignore the law and thus feed a big load of BS to millions of unsuspecting film goers?
We criticize filmmakers who are grossly inaccurate about real events in films "based on a true story," and so we can criticize them for grossly misrepresenting legal rules or procedures.

Feature article

Intolerable Inaccuracy in Intolerable Cruelty

By Michael Asimow

Fans of the Coen Brothers (and I am among them) have high expectations. The writers and directors of such marvelous films as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coen brothers usually deliver off-beat comedies that are very sophisticated and wickedly funny. Their films always have clever scripts with wonderful unexpected twists, great characters (some empathetic, some grotesque), and memorable performances. They have done it again in Intolerable Cruelty and, if this is the sort of thing you like, you'll probably like this film a lot. (And I won't disclose details here that will spoil the film for those who haven't yet seen it).

Yet I found the film distressing and these troubling feelings spoiled my enjoyment of it. I have two issues with Intolerable Cruelty.

First, it's a film about lawyers. The lead is Miles Massey (George Clooney). He is a divorce lawyer and he is the scum of the earth. The pits, just total slime. Early in the film, he concocts a totally false story for his client (Bonny Donaly) and uses her perjured testimony to strip the husband (Donovan Donaly, played by Geoffrey Rush) of his assets (we later see Donaly sleeping on the streets). Massey continues in kind throughout the movie, disregarding every canon of ethics and every dictate of decency and morality in his law practice. He is cynical and greedy, contemptuous of clients, hopelessly vain, and totally amoral. The senior partner of Massey's firm, Herb Meyerson, is as grotesque as any character the Coens have ever created-a superannuated monster without intestines who lives on a feeding tube and endlessly intones statistics about billable hours and summary judgments won.

Since the 1980's, the great majority of movie lawyers have been disgusting characters. Either they are dysfunctional human beings or unethical lawyers--or both. Yet few of them have been quite as bad as Massey. He could be compared to Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) in Liar Liar (a lawyer physically incapable of telling the truth) or to John Milton (Al Pacino) in The Devil's Advocate (who was literally Satan come back to earth as the senior partner of a Wall St. firm). In my humble opinion, the constantly repeated trashing of lawyers in the movies is a factor-not the most important factor but not the least important either-in the stunning decline of the public's opinion of the legal profession over the last twenty-five years or so.

Right now, lawyers are the most detested and distrusted profession in America (except for used car dealers and, in some surveys, the mass media). The nasty lawyer jokes we hear all the time are evidence of this. Movies like Intolerable Cruelty are just piling on a profession that is already down. And I personally don't like it. I am going to speak out against movies that shamelessly pander to homophobic, anti-semitic, or racist audiences. And the same goes for vilifying lawyers. The vast majority of lawyers (not all, of course) are decent, hardworking, ethical people who solve problems for clients and make no better than a decent living in a harsh and highly competitive environment. Enough already with evil lawyer caricatures in the movies!

Second, I believe Intolerable Cruelty could be the single most inaccurate movie about the law in all movie history. It is set in California in the present. Every one of the story lines in the film suggests that California has fault divorce. Thus people are constantly litigating about who committed adultery, because the faithless spouse gets none of the marital property. Also, someone who is married only briefly gets a huge share of the partner's assets.

Now, this is California, for God's sake. California was the national leader in 1973 in adopting no-fault divorce. All states have followed suit with this enlightened reform, although not always to the same degree as California.

Whether someone committed adultery or other misconduct is totally inadmissible on all issues in California marital property litigation. The court won't hear it. Entitlement to get a divorce does not depend in the least upon fault. "Irreconcilable differences" is all you need. There is an even division of community property (50-50 to the penny) regardless of fault. One spouse's obligation to pay the other spousal support has absolutely nothing to do with the fault of either of them. Child custody decisions are independent of fault (unless the fault would bear directly on fitness to be a custodian). And even if this were not true, a spouse has no rights to property owned by the other spouse at the time of marriage (or to income earned by that separate property). As a result, it is unlikely that a woman who marries a rich man in a short marriage will come away with anything very significant.

Now, the question arises: so what? For me, this blatant disregard of the applicable law spoiled the movie, just as if the lawyers performed in court while standing on their heads or people were convicted of murder and sentenced to death for stealing a salami sandwich. Obviously, all movies or TV shows about law distort or oversimplify law or legal procedure (otherwise movie trials would take 4 days instead of half an hour). We willingly accept this, of course. It's just entertainment, not education or a documentary, and slavish adherence to legal details would interfere with the story. It would be silly to insist on absolute accuracy about the law. As a result, the question of a movie's accuracy about legal rules or procedures is highly problematic for a law and pop culture critic.

But isn't there a limit? Shouldn't we criticize filmmakers who completely ignore the law and thus feed a big load of BS to millions of unsuspecting film goers? We criticize filmmakers who are grossly inaccurate about real events in films "based on a true story," and so we can criticize them for grossly misrepresenting legal rules or procedures. This is especially true when the film is likely to mislead people about something as fundamental and intimate as their legal rights in situations of marital infidelity. The filmmakers could have set the film in 1970 instead of 2003, and put it in New York rather than California, and it wouldn't have been quite so far wrong, but it is set in present-day California and it is dead wrong.

Think back to the great legal comedies, like Adam's Rib or My Cousin Vinny or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, or television series like Rumpole of the Bailey. These pop culture products were funny because they played the law relatively straight and found opportunities for humor in the strange situations and weird personalities that can arise in legal proceedings. Other legal comedies, like Bananas, Trial and Error, or A Fish Called Wanda amusingly parodied the law or legal procedure, but nobody watching them would imagine that the law was being correctly stated or applied. Intolerable Cruelty is different from these films, I think in a bad way, by convincingly depicting divorce law in a way that is 180 degrees dead wrong.

Posted October 17, 2003

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views