Proving he's the closest thing to Cary Grant in contempo cinema, George Clooney effortlessly radiates mischievous charm in "Intolerable Cruelty," a thoroughly entertaining comedy about love, lawyers and fat divorce settlements. A slight imbalance in the romantic formula stops it just short of truly soaring.

Proving he’s the closest thing to Cary Grant in contempo cinema, George Clooney effortlessly radiates mischievous charm in “Intolerable Cruelty,” a thoroughly entertaining comedy about love, lawyers and fat divorce settlements. While a slight imbalance in the romantic formula stops it just short of truly soaring, the crackling dialogue and buoyant wordplay make this a delightful throwback to classic screwball comedies. More mainstream and conventional than anything Joel and Ethan Coen have done in the past, yet not without the brothers’ trademark wit, this should top “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to become their most commercial entry to date.

Universal premiered the pungent comedy at the Venice Film Festival as a work-in-progress, with some further tinkering reportedly still to come prior to the fall release. Clooney said at the Venice press conference — which the Coens skipped due to shooting commitments on their next project — that a couple more new scenes have been shot, which may be included. However, aside from some minor tweaks to the sound mix and dialogue levels, the film appears ready to roll as is.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a wildly successful Los Angeles divorce attorney feeling the incipient itch of boredom and midlife crisis. Miles’ ability to win cases regardless of the evidence stacked against his clients is illustrated when Bonnie Donaly (Stacey Travis) retains his services and bleeds dry her TV producer husband, Donovan (Geoffrey Rush), despite his having caught her entertaining a pool cleaner (Jack Kyle) in a house with no pool.

Similarly daunting evidence weighs against philandering real estate developer Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), who hires Miles to represent him when his wife, Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), obtains a video of her husband and a floozy bouncing around a motel room. While Miles is far from immune to knockout Marylin’s ice-cool charms, he turns the tables on her in court, presenting a surprise witness (Jonathan Hadary) who exposes her as a gold-digger who set out to marry a wealthy fool. As a result, Marylin comes away with nothing.

Licking her wounds and plotting revenge, Marylin resurfaces in Miles’ office with her future husband, oil tycoon Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), and insists on signing the famously impenetrable “Massey pre-nup” as proof her love is unsullied by material concerns. Taking a hint subtly planted by Marylin, Howard destroys the contract during their wedding as a gesture of his love, allowing his bride to take him to the cleaners.

Six months later when she reappears, the mutual attraction between Marylin and Miles is stronger than ever, and she sinks her claws into him with an unhappy-rich-girl act. But Miles gets wise to her conniving, prompting an increasingly ruthless series of deceptions and counter-tactics.

Remarkably sustained and consistently funny, the film often recalls classic comedies of union and divorce like “The Awful Truth” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” or the attraction-animosity of “Bringing Up Baby.” The precision-tooled screenplay by the Coens, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone sparkles with clever dialogue, dark humor and some hilarious comic set pieces.

One scene in particular, involving asthmatic hit man Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), seems destined to become a classic in the Coen pantheon. The script also has real bite in its observations about the vultures of Beverly Hills, whether they be amoral lawyers or Botox-pumped career divorcees.

As always with the filmmakers, there’s a colorful gallery of peripheral figures, superbly cast with gifted character actors. A pony-tailed, California-bronzed Rush perfectly sets the slightly manic comic tone in the terrific opening sequence; Thornton’s timing and delivery are razor-sharp as the verbose Texan dolt; Cedric the Entertainer scores some big laughs as an overzealous private detective who specializes in nailing adulterers; Hadary is a riot as the fey hotel concierge; and Paul Adelstein is enormously appealing as Miles’ blindly loyal, sentimental associate.

The script’s one weakness — though not a crippling one — lies in the development of Marylin. Zeta-Jones looks spectacular and plays the calculating beauty with flawless poise and authority. But the character is so venal and self-serving that she lacks the warmth and heart to be fully convincing when her deeper feelings for Miles kick in. On one hand, this keeps the audience guessing about whether she’s on the level or still scheming, but on the other, it slightly undermines the romantic comedy.

But this is really Clooney’s film, and as he did in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the actor again shows his comic sensibility and the Coens’ are a genial match. In a running joke that echoes Clooney’s endless hair concerns in that earlier film, Miles’ dazzling capped teeth are his main obsession here. Slick and unscrupulous but never for a moment seeming without a soul, Miles is all about easy confidence and control, fast talk and an ultra-smooth manner. But Clooney balances just enough emotional openness to be believable when the lawyer drops his smart cynicism.

Appropriately, for this kind of star-driven vehicle, regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins goes for a crisp, glossy look and rich colors, matched with stylish costumes, handsome production design and upscale Los Angeles locations that reflect the well-heeled characters. Musically, the film makes amusing use of Simon & Garfunkel tunes, but perhaps under-utilizes Carter Burwell’s jaunty score.

Intolerable Cruelty

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production in association with Alphaville. Produced by Ethan Coen, Brian Grazer. Executive producers, James Jacks, Sean Daniel. Co-producers, John Cameron, James Whitaker. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; story, Ramsey, Stone, John Romano.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Roger Deakins; editor, Roderick Jaynes; music, Carter Burwell; production designer, Leslie McDonald; art director, Tony Fanning; set decorator, Nancy Haigh; costume designer, Mary Zophres; sound (SDDS/DTS/Dolby Digital), Peter Kurland; associate producer, Robert Graf; assistant director, Betsy Magruder; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 2, 2003. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Miles Massey - George Clooney Marylin Rexroth - Catherine Zeta-Jones Donovan Donaly - Geoffrey Rush Gus Petch - Cedric the Entertainer Rex Rexroth - Edward Hermann Freddy Bender - Richard Jenkins Howard Doyle - Billy Bob Thornton Wrigley - Paul Adelstein
With: Julia Duffy, Stacey Travis, Jack Kyle, Jonathan Hadary, Irwin Keyes.
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