Pretty Witty

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Here's an anomaly: a comedy about smart people. Joel and Ethan Coen, having made a film whose title (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) was taken from a Preston Sturges movie, now launch a full, fond invasion of Sturges territory. In the tradition of The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, this is a farce with chic repartee, devious twists and a cheerfully sardonic take on the human need for greed. Intolerable Cruelty sends moviegoers back to the '40s, when pretty people said witty things. It's the brothers' brightest, most accessible jape.

The script, by the Coens, John Romano, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, sets Miles Massey (George Clooney), a Beverly Hills divorce lawyer with fabulous teeth and midlife ennui, against gorgeous, oft-married Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Miles is beguiled by her beauty and cunning, and she might be attracted to him, if he hadn't weaseled her out of a fortune and if she weren't about to marry a Texas zillionaire (Billy Bob Thornton).

Like a prime Sturges comedy, this one has plenty of ripe character parts. Cedric the Entertainer is a private eye who's all tenacity, no tact ("You want tact, call a tactician"). Paul Adelstein serves nobly as the comic foil; Geoffrey Rush as a blithe, then ferocious cuckold; Julia Duffy as a rich divorce; Jonathan Hadary as a purring aristocrat-for-hire; Irwin Keyes as a hit man with a deadly wheeze.

Even when the movie sags and strains a bit in Act III, Clooney keeps it flying with old-fashioned movie-star allure. He's got it all: Cary Grant's looks and, inside, Bob Hope's snake-oil-salesman soul.