The Coen brothers may be thought of as the most independent-minded of independents, but they have been known to flirt with the mainstream. The Hudsucker Proxy was a studio movie that failed to make good - - commercially at least - - while O Brother, Where Art Thou? propelled the Brothers Grim into the strange world of the multiplex.
Yet never have the Coens toyed with mainstream moviemaking like this, returning on George Clooney's instigation to a spec script they first reworked eight years ago. Worrisome? Only on paper, and then only before the boys had taken the original script, your everyday rom-com, and scribbled all over it. What emerges is an entertaining homage to '30s screwball: a sharp, sassy comedy that's stuffed with the Coens' skewed humour, jaunty irreverence and grotesque characterisation.
Clooney is Miles Massey, an ultra-successful Beverly Hills divorce attorney who's legendary in both courtroom and law offices for his ironclad pre-nuptial agreements. Miles first meets Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) when her philandering husband hires his services. Being Massey, it matters little that Marylin has video evidence of her hubby fooling around with a floozy. He still exposes her as a gold-digger and leaves her without a dime.
Then Marylin turns up at Miles' office asking for a "Massey pre-nup", determined to prove her love for an oil tycoon (Billy Bob Thornton) is genuine before tying the knot. Obviously there's more going on here than meets the eye, and Massey and Marylin are soon involved in a game of cat-and-mouse, driven by hot loins and cold hearts.
Playing Massey as a descendant of Everett McGill in O Brother (only this time obsessed with his perfect teeth rather than slick hair), Clooney turns in a terrific comic performance that stirs memories of Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, does her best Katharine Hepburn-with-added-sizzle impression, managing to locate Marylin's sympathetic side by portraying her not so much as a gold-digger (well, maybe a bit) as a woman scorned. Together they share chemistry to die for, both comic and sexual.
But, as ever with a Coen brothers movie, there's also a gallery of vibrant supporting players, Geoffrey Rush popping up as a TV producer, Cedric The Entertainer appearing as a driven PI, and Irwin Keyes giving life to asthmatic hitman Wheezy Joe. And Billy Bob? Well, he's as fantastic as ever, his character's verbal diarrhoea making a stark, smart counterpoint to his barber's reticence in The Man Who Wasn't There.
Intolerable Cruelty might not be classic Coens, its captivating eccentricities not quite hiding the join-the-dots Hollywood rom-com that lurks beneath. But it's still knockout entertainment from start to finish. The boys done good - again.
The Coen brothers turn a routine premise into a fabulous, screwy comedy, lit up by some blinding star wattage. It will be intolerably cruel if this isn't a big hit.