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