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MOVIE REVIEW

Coens' `Cruelty' has comedic court appeal

I'm not sure who said it first, but whoever did was right: The world doesn't need any more lawyers. What it needs is more movie stars playing lawyers. I think Joel and Ethan Coen are with me on this one. For "Intolerable Cruelty," they've hired George Clooney to play Miles Massey, a Los Angeles divorce attorney whose outrageous courtroom successes include 564 summary judgments. His prenuptial agreement is so airtight it's studied at Harvard Law School. And every professional man-eater in the 213 and 310 area codes shudders at the mention of his name. One of his victims, a woman tells us, is currently salting fries at McDonald's.

Miles is a divorce-law god, and this being one of the Coens' sharpest screwball comedies, he's also a relentless heel. Clooney plays him with untold amounts of self-deflating charm and vanity, particularly once Catherine Zeta-Jones arrives as the defendant in one of his cases and the vamp who steals his heart.

"Intolerable Cruelty" is as close as the Coens have come to conjuring the romantic disenchantment found in the movies of Billy Wilder. They do an excellent job of mocking the law and conjuring a greedy, seedy, pulpy Los Angeles where spouses habitually cheat on each other and any marriage can turn actionable.

The film is often at odds with itself as a sincere work of romantic comedy, as Wilder's sometimes were, too. Nonetheless, it's determined to keep Clooney's considerable comedic skills front and center. He's never been looser, sexier, or more antic. And the priceless supporting cast is in peak form -- an array of character actors that includes Cedric the Entertainer, Geoffrey Rush, and, especially, Paul Adelstein as Miles's blubbering junior counsel, Wrigley.

Cedric plays private investigator Gus Petch, hired by Zeta-Jones's Marylin Rexroth to help end her latest marriage. He videotapes her land baron husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) with a jiggly blonde in a motel. Ruddy Rex heads directly to Miles to keep Marylin away from his assets, which he claims are all tied up in a new deal, anyway. Even Miles is a little taken aback by this one: Marylin's done nothing wrong.

But one of the many enjoyable things about the Coens' screenplay and Zeta-Jones's performance is that the only parties blind to the shovel in her gold-digging hand are her husbands. Miles takes Marylin out to dinner before the trial, and, in a scene that belongs in the screwball banter hall of fame, accuses her of being a man-hater. "People don't go on safaris because they hate animals, Mr. Massey," she quips. (You can just imagine Zeta-Jones in a Fendi pith helmet as she delivers the line.)

Marylin's designs on Rex's fortune crumble when during the trial Miles introduces as star witness Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), a mincing, irritable, dog-toting concierge. The Coens milk this trial for all it's worth, building an entire "who's on first" around the word "before" and drawing riotous comic suspense from the Baron, who remembers that years ago Marylin told him she wanted a rich husband, so he introduced her to Rex. Naturally, Marylin loses everything but vows to marry again, which she does -- in record time! He's a talkaholic oil magnate named Howard D. Doyle, played by Billy Bob Thornton.

To Miles's dismay, she loves this dim, rambling man enough to sign a Massey prenup. And Miles, of course, realizes that he hopelessly loves Marylin.

It's here in the movie's second act that "Intolerable Cruelty" starts dithering. The material demands that Miles and Marylin be pulled toward a happy union, but the Coens go kicking and screaming most of the way, so that the last 20 minutes, which are more darkly comic than what preceded, nevertheless feel coerced into corniness. The Coens have trained us not to take Hollywood sentiment seriously, yet they insist on peddling it here anyway.

We're meant to see the sincerity as pap and the arch distrust as sincere. Whatever investment you intend to make in Miles and Marylin is tickled away with irony. There's a great moment for Clooney in which a besotted Miles tells a congregation of divorce lawyers that "love is good." But it's a put-on, delivered presumably as a ribbing of Michael Douglas's famous "Greed is good" sermon from "Wall Street." Why?

And of all the dames for Miles to fall for, why Marylin? The movie argues that it's her ruthlessness that hooks him. But surely LA is full of such women, ones who don't also have designs on sucking his bank account dry.

In his defense, though, none is the beauty that Zeta-Jones is. She rarely strays from the path of perfume-scented bitchery laid out for her, only once peeling back the facade to express true concern. And in that tiny moment, you're surprised that as much as you enjoy the Zeta-Jones shrew, her version of decency has a nice shock value. But as with the rest of "Intolerable Cruelty," you're afraid to trust it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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