Miles Massey boasts dentition to die for. His pearly whites are his pride and joy, and he checks them, brushes them, guides his tongue approvingly across them, as if his livelihood depended on their preternatural gleam. Which, in a way, in the snappy screwball comedy that is "Intolerable Cruelty," it does.
Massey is a divorce lawyer. He wrote the book on prenups. He knows not the word "defeat." He's a charmer, a schemer, a shark, and, more than anything, a talker - talking the pants, not to mention the personal fortunes, off sorry soon-to-be-exes who have the bad luck to be represented by opposing counsel.
Played by George Clooney with a mix of killer cool and pop-eyed agitation, Miles Massey has never met a cuckold he couldn't console, or a cheating wife he couldn't confidently assure of a settlement in the high seven figures. And throw in the beach house, too.
Enter Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the slinky gold digger extraordinaire who has filed papers against her millionaire husband - and Massey's client - Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann). Can Massey, in the throes of a midlife crisis that has him reassessing his swell house, sleek pool and fleet of Mercedeses, outsmart the drop-dead gorgeous mercenary of the matrimonial set? Can he keep his head in the company of this dazzling divorcee? Can the Coen brothers make movies that hark back to Hollywood's glory days?
Well, at least in regards to question three, you betcha.
"Intolerable Cruelty" borrows the whip-flapping pace and wit of many a sophisticated `40s farce, most notably "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story" - a pair of Preston Sturges gems in which money and marriage made for glorious mayhem. (Billy Bob Thornton shows up here as a cowpoke tycoon smitten with Zeta-Jones, virtually mimicking Robert Dudley's "Wienie King," smitten with Claudette Colbert in "The Palm Beach Story.")
Directed by Joel Coen and produced by Ethan Coen (along with Hollywood veteran Brian Grazer), from a script that has the Coens' names on it along with several other scribes', "Intolerable Cruelty" is easily the filmmaking duo's most overtly commercial enterprise. But even mainstream Coens is bound to get loopy, and "Intolerable Cruelty" does - with a law firm's frighteningly ghostly, ghastly despot, with an asthmatic assassin named Wheezy Joe, with a speech to a convention of divorce lawyers that turns into a parody of heart-tugging Capra-esque do-rightism.
Clooney - who obsessed over his coif (instead of his teeth) in his previous collaboration with the Coens, the sublimely silly "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - is a debonair delight as the implacable lawyer turned love-struck fool. And Zeta-Jones is certainly more than convincing as the curvy vixen who can manipulate men with the arch of a brow. Geoffrey Rush (funny, for once), Cedric the Entertainer (as a private eye with a crowd-pleasing catch phrase), Richard Jenkins and Julia Duffy all acquit themselves ably.
As cleverly written and deftly directed as "Intolerable Cruelty" is, there are slack and sloggy patches, and the deliberate retro-ness of it all gives the movie an oddly anachronistic feel. But there are laughs here aplenty, and sexy, goofy, off-the-cuff charm. And when the world-weary coffee-shop waitress gets an unexpected request for a salad of "baby field greens," well, it's the order of the day.