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Intolerable Cruelty

Near the end of this smart, speedy romantic farce, the comic engine hits a wall and sputters. Until then, this Coen brothers film — easily their silliest — is fueled by a screwball fizz that keeps the laughs popping. It helps that the stars are impossibly charming George Clooney and impossibly stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones. He plays Miles Massey, a killer L.A. divorce lawyer. She plays Marylin Rexroth, a gold digger ready to take her husband (Edward Herrmann) to the cleaners — until he hires Miles and she gets screwed. Miles wants Marylin; Marylin wants revenge.

This script has been kicking around for eight years and feels it (L.A. greed is a dusty topic). But the Coens — Joel writes and directs, Ethan writes and produces — haven’t lost their knack for laughs with a sting. “My job is to nail asses, I’m an ass nailer,” says a sleazy detective (a terrific Cedric the Entertainer). “Hmm,” says Marylin, “an aphorist.”

In the Coen manner, the film brims with crafty character turns, including Billy Bob Thornton as a rich Texan and Geoffrey Rush as a ponytailed TV producer. But Clooney is definitely the man of these two hours. His portrait of a shark in love is a model of classy comic acting. Clooney isn’t afraid to look goofy, and neither are the Coens. Even a dead ending can’t spoil the pleasure of their company.

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