The cruelest cut of all in “Intolerable Cruelty” comes neither from George Clooney nor Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose chemistry and combined star wattage is so scorching, you’ll feel as if your eyebrows have been singed.
The truly heartwrenching pain comes from the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who’ve written and directed an uneven romantic comedy after making their name with films both darkly comic (“Raising Arizona”) and comically graphic (“Fargo”).
Surprisingly, they succeed for the first two-thirds — until the running gag of marrying and divorcing, of signing prenuptial agreements then promptly ripping them up, grows tediously repetitive.
They had something great going, too, and the script (which they wrote with Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) has the kind of witty banter that recalls the best romantic comedies of the 1940s.
Clooney’s matinee-idol looks make him a natural for the role, and he’s irresistibly charming as Miles Massey, the most successful divorce lawyer in Los Angeles.
Zeta-Jones, as his scheming client, Marylin Rexroth, is glamorous beyond all physical possibility — a perfect match for Clooney in every regard.
Marylin’s ex-husband, the wealthy (of course) real estate developer Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), initially walked into Miles’ office after a private investigator (Cedric the Entertainer) catches him bouncing around a motel room with a lingerie-clad blonde. (Though why anyone would cheat on the stunning Marylin is a total mystery.)
Despite the abundance of physical evidence, Miles wins the case for Rex with his ultra-slick courtroom skills, and Marylin ends up with nothing. To get revenge, Marylin marries gullible oil tycoon Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton, who’s hilariously doofy) and enlists Miles’ services in drawing up the famous “Massey prenup,” knowing fully that Howard won’t hold her to it. All Howard can do is sit by cluelessly as sparks fly between the lawyer and his future wife.
This touches off a seemingly endless cycle of marriage and manipulation that quickly wears out its welcome. Clooney mugs for the camera so much as the film lurches toward his slapstick conclusion, it’s as if he’s back in the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as a scheming, delusional ex-con.
(Speaking of “O Brother,” the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot that film and worked wonders with light and shadow in the Coens’ black-and-white “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” also shot “Intolerable Cruelty,” giving the film a colorful, glossy sheen.)
The fabulous Marylin, meanwhile, is so thinly drawn, it’s hard to care about her or whether she ends up with Miles, as the romantic comedy formula dictates. She’s a gold-digger, she dresses beautifully, and that’s about it.
Still, she and Clooney make the film tolerable, at least for a while.