Oct 20, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty shows once again why combining love and comedy is among the most difficult tasks in fiction writing. Love wants to get close. Comedy wants to step back and make fun. If you don't find the right balance between the two, you're dead.

That's exactly what went wrong with Intolerable Cruelty. With all the smart satire and farcical comedy in this film, this is still at heart a love story between Miles and Marylin. Which means there's got to be real emotion. You can't just tell the audience that characters have feelings for each other. Emotion must be set up, nurtured, brought into the story carefully.

That doesn't happen here. One, Miles doesn't trust Marylin from the beginning, given that she is a total gold-digger. Two, Marylin doesn't trust Miles, given that he is the ultimate sleazy lawyer.

This is not a screwball comedy. But it does share the same story problem: how to make the love real while doing so much broad comedy. Screwball comedy knows you have give the two leads time together. And it has to be quiet time, where they can respond to the deepest part of the other person, so the audience can see that they are capable of love and not just pawns of the plot.

Intolerable Cruelty also fails to set up the comic plot properly. In a story about two master scam artists, the scams better be ingenious and the artists better be smart. But Miles is unbelievably dumb, leaving himself wide open to a woman he knows has only one desire, to take revenge against him.

This film has some very funny lines. But that is not enough. The key to any romantic comedy is setting the proper comic structure (for details, see the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class). Fail there, and nothing else is going to help.