At the end of the sparkling frivolity that is Joel and Ethan Coen's "Intolerable Cruelty," you realize how much lovers of romantic comedy have suffered all these years.
Those of us who grew up watching black-and-white classics such as "His Girl Friday" or "It Happened One Night" on Saturday afternoon television with our moms were introduced to the genre at its best, as delicious as the finest vintage champagne. Beautiful banter from magical couples -- smart, sassy and alive.
But it was downhill from there, and in recent years, Hollywood has taken to feeding us romantic swill of the Andre Cold Duck variety, chemistry-free bores such as "Maid in Manhattan" or "Alex & Emma." We haven't tasted Dom Perignon in ages. Indeed, we've been so parched that we could almost delude ourselves into believing the likes of "My Best Friend's Wedding" could quench our thirst.
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"Intolerable Cruelty" reminds us how good romantic comedy can be, but interestingly enough, it's not a particularly romantic movie. Our hero and heroine are not even nice people. Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a cutthroat Los Angeles divorce attorney, so cagey and clever he can make a cuckolded spouse look as though he or she deserved it. Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a fortune hunter, prowling the jungle of matrimony like a big cat looking for a foolish morsel of a man to devour.
Miles is representing Marylin's husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), a bigger-than-life goofball who would have fit right into the cast of "The Big Lebowski." Her private eye (Cedric the Entertainer) recently caught Rex drunk, with a blonde, in a hotel room, with his pants down, and Marylin thinks she's got an airtight case against him. Then she meets Miles.
There's no love at first sight, but there is fascination. Miles is more obvious about his attraction; we can tell by the arch of his eyebrows and the lift in his energy level that he hasn't seen anything like Marylin in years, if ever. Marylin plays her cards closer to her chest, but there's a flicker in her golden brown eyes that indicates she's intrigued by Miles as well.
Most contemporary romantic comedies ask us to blindly root for two characters to fall in love, shed any distasteful characteristics, overcome some ludicrous misunderstanding and run off into the sunset together. The Coen brothers don't do that. We're rapt, but not because we're rooting for Miles and Marylin to fall in love. We just want to know what these two slightly despicable, unpredictable and extremely amusing characters are going to do next. And because Clooney and Zeta-Jones have amazing chemistry, chemistry of the bristling, provocative Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell variety, we want to see them do it together.
As he did in the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Clooney displays a great gift for comedy, the kind that makes you think he's wasted as a debonair leading man. His Miles preens as much as Ulysses Everett McGill did, although he's more focused on his teeth than his hair (when we first see him, he's just a wide-open mouth in the dentist's chair, getting a fresh bleaching). Every gesture is precise and calculated to get a laugh, whether he's drumming his finger on a conference table or numbly swatting tennis balls while he tries to figure out what makes Marylin tick.
It's hard to imagine that Zeta-Jones will ever have a more appropriate role in a movie. There's something about the actress that makes you imagine you know what she's like, and Marylin is basically a parody of that speculation. She's calculating, she's in control, she's completely a woman -- no girl left in her -- and she's absolutely breathtaking. There's an implication of cruelty in her curved mouth, but it's countered by the flash of humor in her eyes.
The movie also gains buoyancy from a host of irresistible peripheral characters, all of them straight out of the oddball, slightly mannered world of the Coens (the script was originally written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, then tinkered with by the Coens). Geoffrey Rush has a manic turn as a television producer who catches his wife in a compromising position with the pool boy. He's good, but Billy Bob Thornton is even better as one of Marylin's husbands, a rich Texan with a soft heart and a tendency toward verbal diarrhea. Paul Adelstein is clever as Miles' obsequious right-hand man, and Julia Duffy manages to be a stitch as a social X-ray Hollywood wife while barely moving her Botoxed mouth.
Hard-core Coen brothers fans may be disappointed by "Intolerable Cruelty," which they might see as a sign that the boys are going Hollywood. Certainly this is a more mainstream movie than "Fargo" or "The Man Who Wasn't There." But when the film's biggest laugh (and we're talking big) involves a guy named Wheezy Joe, some of the best slapstick choreography this side of the Marx Brothers and a pistol, there's no denying we're in Coen brothers territory. And that's a divine place to be.
Mary F. Pols is the Times movie critic. Reach her at 925-945-4741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.