Miles Massey (George Clooney) has it all. As a divorce lawyer, his Massey Pre-nuptial Agreement is considered the most ironclad in the business. He is so successful he has a tab at the local Mercedes Benz dealership. His ability to sway a jury is so good that even the Herculean task of extracting Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) from his marriage to Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) despite the fact that he was the one caught cheating, doesn’t seem to pose much of a challenge. But it’s during that trial that Massey finds himself fascinated with Marilyn. Not only is she beautiful, but he discovers her nearly as coldly calculating as himself.
Six months later Marilyn reenters Massey’s life, this time with new fiancée oil tycoon Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) in tow. Despite the fact that Massey had scuttled her previous gold-digging scheme, she insists on one of his ironclad pre-nups for her upcoming marriage, overriding Howard’s objections. Marilyn states that she really is in love with Howard and wants to pre-nup for his protection. Massey doesn’t believe her for a minute, but goes along with her request, intrigued to see what plan she has up her sleeve. He also realizes that he is falling in love with her.
Like their thrillers, the Coen Brothers (writer/director Joel and writer/producer Ethan) have loaded their script to Intolerable Cruelty chock full with surprising plot twists and snappy dialog. While the film is being advertised as a romantic comedy, it is definitely more of a throw back to the screwball comedies of the `30s and `40s, much like their previous films Raising Arizona (1987) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Of course, everything is filtered through the Coen’s unique prism. Oft times jokes, like the bagpiper playing Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, are played in the background without comment from the characters. Coen Brothers movies often feature decidedly quirky characters and the newest edition to that pantheon is the hitman Wheezy Joe, who has perhaps the most darkly funny exit from a film in recent memory.
Clooney is great, firing off his lines rapid fire when in lawyer more, smooth and silky when he’s trying to charm Zeta-Jones. Massey’s obsession with keeping his teeth perfectly white even feels as if Clooney is lightly spoofing his own image of handsome leading man. He also displays adept ability for physical comedy, wrapping his face into a scream or taking a slapstick fall when needed, especially during the film’s penultimate scenes. Zeta-Jones positively smolders as the calculating Marilyn and somehow never gets the audience to hate her for her scheming ways. The Coens have assembled an admirable supporting cast, Paul Adelstein manages to match Clooney’s performance energy as Massey’s sidekick. Equally good, though sadly underutilized are Geoffrey Rush as a television producer and Cedric The Entertainer as a sleazy private investigator who specializes in catching cheating spouses.