INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. With George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cedric the Entertainer. Running time: 100 mins. Rated PG-13: Sexual content, language, brief violence.
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have been surprising us with their twisted genre riffs from the 1984 "Blood Simple" through the 2000 "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Now comes their biggest surprise - they've gone commercial.
"Intolerable Cruelty" is a screwball black comedy, reflecting both the style of Preston Sturges and the tone of "War of the Roses," with just enough Coen brothers touches to make it recognizable as theirs.
It plays like "War of the Roses" in reverse. The featured couple start out trying to destroy each other and along the way discover mutual respect - albeit for their antisocial tendencies.
The key to its commerciality is in its sublimely decorative casting of George Clooney, the closest Hollywood has come to a replacement for Cary Grant, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, a smoldering beauty on the order of Ava Gardner.
Clooney is Miles Massey, a Beverly Hills divorce lawyer who specializes and takes particular glee in denying calculating divorcées the settlements they've been counting on since meeting and marrying their rich, usually older husbands.
Zeta-Jones is one such gold-dust divorcée, Marylin Rexroth, and she doesn't take well to being thwarted in her pursuit of a fortune.
After a hilarious opening, in which Massey rescues his wealthy client from Marylin in court, the suave lawyer and his mesmerizing prey begin a cat-and-mouse game that moves lickety-split toward an uncertain romantic alliance.
One of the most recognizable Coen touches is Clooney himself. He plays Miles like a cleaned-up and educated version of his hair-conscious chain-gang escapee in "O Brother."
Rather than hair, the object of Miles' narcissistic compulsion is his teeth, which he keeps brilliantly bleached and under the constant surveillance of available reflective surfaces.
Clooney knocks this role out of the park.
He simply has the most engaging screen personality of any contemporary star. He's as good-looking as a tax refund, but, more important, he has a casual ease before the camera that makes his performances seem effortless.
Zeta-Jones is Clooney's physical match, but there's a bit too much of her "Chicago" persona Velma Kelly in this character.
Though Marylin is a great femme fatale, she never shows a speck of the humanity that we are eventually asked to accept.
The Coens needed to include one or two more scenes in which Marylin shows some vulnerability, either to Miles or to her best friend, Sarah (Julia Duffy), another serial divorcée in whom she confides her own schemes.
But if "Intolerable Cruelty" isn't a convincing love story, it's a hugely entertaining one, with comic relief - in the form of Cedric the Entertainer as a voyeuristic private eye and Tom Aldredge as a decaying law-firm boss issuing directives while hooked up to life-support - piled on top of the comedy.
Originally published on October 10, 2003