Movie Reviews

Intolerable Cruelty

Can something good come from intolerable cruelty? A study of meaning and purpose

Laura Carr

Brain Grazer’s Intolerable Cruelty (2003), starring George Clooney (as Miles Massey) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Marylin Rexroth), is a movie that calls people to question if they have a true purpose and meaning in life.

Miles Massey is a divorce attorney who twists, manipulates and distorts the truth in order to get his client as much of the marital assets as possible. He is a deceiver striving for one thing – success! Perhaps it could be argued that Massey does have a purpose for his life – to have occupational success – but in actuality he is bored. I believe that Mr. Massey is so dissatisfied with his life because there is no substantial meaning behind this success.

Marylin Rexroth is Miles Massey’s equal. She too is a schemer and a deceiver striving for success, but her “purpose” is quiet a bit more succinct then Massey’s. She is striving to retrieve her “passport to wealth, independence and freedom”, and her method to achieve this is by marrying a rich man, divorcing him and taking a big bundle of his money.

For both Miles and Marylin, “winning” is just a creative game to get what they think will make them happiest, but they are on a long journey to find out this is not the case at all.

The turning point in Miles’ life is a lot sooner than in Marylin’s. Arguably Miles begins to find true meaning in his life when he meets Marylin and becomes “fascinated” with her. She becomes his meaning and he is completely changed after their marriage. It is after their marriage that he now has someone (or something) to live for. He speaks publicly about “love” like no matrimony lawyer ever would. He even takes a step further by stepping down from his high occupational position with the purpose of getting into probono work.

Marylin on the other hand initially appears to be changed but in actuality is still focused on her initial goal; this time with Miles as her target. Marylin deceives Miles into marrying her by convincing him that she finally realizes that money is not everything. She does this by claiming that she does not want to be like her good friend Sarah who died alone with “only a peptic ulcer to keep her warm at night”. Sarah had already played Marylin’s game, gone through a few husbands resulting in great wealth but she was alone and the stress of the processes left her with a peptic ulcer.

Marylin’s trickery works but she soon realizes that she really cares about Miles. It is kind of ironic that these two self-centered characters both find true meaning when they realize their selfless love for each other.

Application to Meaning Centered Counseling

Miles Massey and Marylin Rexroth are prime examples of many people in our Western Culture, striving for success and wealth. Therefore as a meaning centered therapist in North America, one will most likely be exposed to numerous people with similar mindsets. The remainder of this paper will focus on a few aspects related to meaning, drawing from the movie for further understanding. As a meaning centered counselor it is essential to be competent in these issues, which are as follows: meaning as seen in relationships, having a “good life” based on happiness, money and love.

King-To Yeung: Culture, Perception, Personality and Love

King-To Yeung (2005) strives to educate people about the true meaning of relationships which “are often inadequately understood” (p. 391). Miles and Marylin lacked meaning in their lives until they discovered a genuine relationship (Grazer & Coen, 2003). King-To Yeung unlocks this “key to meaning” by explaining how relationships generate meaning. For starters we are all products of our culture, and culture “is a system of meanings generated by the social ties of actors” (Fine & Kleinman, 1983; cf. Eliasoph & Lichterman, 2003; as cited by Yeung, 2005, p. 392).

How culture defines relationships is what in turn defines meaning. Along with cultural influences, we have personal influences. What one brings to the relationship also defines meaning. Yeung (2003) calls this “the duality of persons” (p. 392). It is a dualism that consists of personality and perception. In interdependent ties, each member brings to the relationship their personal characteristics, without this, Yeung argues that there is no true value to the social interaction. Also the quality of the relationship generates meaning, and this quality can only be formulated by perceptions since quality is in the eye of the beholder (Yeung, 2005).
Miles and Marylin’s life story is not fully revealed to the viewer but we are given hints (Grazer & Coen, 2003). They would have both grown up in a modern Western culture where money is associated with success, independence and the self are focal points, and marriage is not “until death do us part.” I believe that having this cultural background, and having their personalities is what drove their love to have true meaning. They knew the extreme opposite, living for themselves, before they met each other (Grazer & Coen, 2003). In their case they needed to know the extreme opposite to fully understand the meaning behind their love, for it was different from what the World had taught them.

Yeung (2005) also brought up a key point in understanding relationships and helps explain why “love” is such a complex idea. Swindler (2001) argues that what love means varies because individuals “adopt cultural resources to make sense of what they think “love” means” (as cited by Yeung, 2005, p. 393). In the movie, one can question if the protagonists even believed in love at all, until they accidentally discovered it (Grazer & Coen, 2003). After all, their culture failed to cherish the precious union of matrimony and love like in the past.

Yeung also brings up something that is an essential skill for meaning centered therapists. Since perceptions and cultural influences uniquely define an individual’s personal definition of “love,” therapists have to be able to deceipher what “love” means to their client. This definition can be found in the way that this concept is connected to “other relational concepts in a web of signification” (Yeung, 2005, p. 393). In other words a concept definition can only be found when in conjunction with other concepts (Yeung, 2005, p.393).

To conclude this section, one can see that relationships create meaning, and the meaning found in the love that forms the relationship is very subjective. This emphasizes just how unique each client is when trying to discover their meaning in life.

Material Happiness

King and Napa (1998) examines the key ingredients of a good life – happiness, meaning of life and money. Everyone wants to be happy, but does money bring happiness? Does happiness bring meaning? Do these three variables really work together to make a good life? Miles and Marylin both had money and a “meaning” to life (more like a shallow goal), but they were not fully happy until they fell in love.

From any poverty-stricken person, both Miles and Marylin had a “good life,” they had everything they needed and everything they wanted. Yet they were not fully satisfied (Grazer & Coen, 2003). This just demonstrates that there is more to life then having all you want. In other words what really makes a life good is much greater than anything that can be held. True purpose and meaning in life is the only ingredient really needed to possess a “good life”. Life can never be fully happy and money can never fully satisfy.

First one must understand that you can have genuine meaning to life and not be fully happy. To emphasize this point, King and Napa (1998) look at the idea of the suffering person. Frankl is a prime example of this; he went through concentration camps, watched his loved ones die, yet never lost his purpose (Frankl, 1986). Frankl even states that “it is important to note that a person may suffer greatly and still possess a strong sense of purpose” (Frankl, 1985; as cited by King & Napa, 1998). Obviously suffering does not bring happiness, and although a suffering person may not possess a theoretical “good life” they can still have a “good life” depending on the purpose they give to it.

Suffering can also be found in financial deprivation. The topic of poverty is a huge matter in the New Testament and constantly demonstrates that the ideal is “a poverty rich life that is rich in meaning” (King & Napa, 1998, p.3). Money does not in fact bring happiness. This is not only a concept of the New Testament but has also been empirically proven through research. For example, “Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman (1978) found that winning a large sum of money resulted in only a temporary increase in subjective well being” (as cited by King & Napa, 1998, p. 3). This is exactly what both Miles and especially Marylin discovered in their pursuits for financial gains; it could only temporarily satisfy (Grazer & Coen, 2003).

Love and Meaning

This paper thus far has argued that true meaning is found in relationships, which is why Miles and Marylin may have had a purpose in life but still lacked true meaning (Grazer & Coen, 2003). Meaningful relationships which generate meaning are bound by different forms of love. In the previous section it has also been concluded that a good life is not found in happiness or money but in meaning. Therefore it can be tied together and concluded that one has a good life when they have a meaning for life, and the meaning for life is found in its fullest through relationships. Since relationships are tied by love we need to understand love a little more.

Love is a concept that “mental health professional avoid talking about” (Levine, 2005, p. 150) but as meaning-centered therapists it is essential. It has already been touched upon, that as a therapist one must understand the client’s definition of love by how they conjoin the concept with other concepts (Yeung, 2005). Levine argues that love is: not “a simple feeling” (p.144), instead it is a “complex emotion” (p.145); it is something everyone longs for (p.145); and it is something that is supposed to be a moral commitment (p.146). By this understanding, how could Marylin have had true meaning in life when “love” to her was everything opposite to what love really is (Grazer & Coen, 2003). For example to her love was the product of two simple feelings, interest and pleasure, which one could associate with material possessions, like love for a textbook (Levine, 2005). Marylin loved the game she was playing, but did not love the people involved (Grazer & Coen, 2003). Also, she never truly loved because she was never truly committed; marriage had no meaning (Grazer & Coen, 2003). She lacked genuine love, and without love she could not build authentic relationships and without relationships she could not have true meaning.

Closing Remarks

Intolerable Cruelty (Grazer & Coen, 2003) is a good scenario for meaning centered therapists to study. It really shows that although Miles and Marylin had a goal that they were striving for, they still lacked meaning in their lives. They were striving for something they thought would make them happy but in actuality it was nothing without having someone to share life with. At first they were blinded by their cultural influences; falsely believing wealth and success was far more important than anything else. As meaning centered therapists, we must understand that each person’s meaning and definition of love varies according to their culture, their perception, and their personalities (Yeung, 2005). If Miles and Marylin were clients, we would have to take this into consideration. In regards to love however, one must understand the general aspects (Levine, 2005) of it in order to counsel to the fullest.
Lastly as counselors we must be wise to the false assumptions that money brings happiness and that happiness is needed to have a good life (King & Napa, 1998). This was Miles and Marylin’s downfall (Grazer & Coen, 2003). In fact a good life is uncovered when one finds true meaning.


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  • Grazer, B. & Coen, E. (Producers) & Coen, J. & Coen, E. (Directors). (2003).
    Intolerable cruelty [motion picture]. United States: Universal Studios.
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