Intolerable Cruelty

Though “Intolerable Cruelty” is set in the present day, its roots are in the screwball farces of the 1930s and ’40s. It maintains a safe distance from the inner emotions of its characters (a Coen Bros. constant), puts comedy at center stage, and perpetrates such whimsy, such loopy wordplay, such manifest absurdity, that one is liable afterward to forget everything about it, except that it made one laugh.

Perhaps the film’s modern setting is part of the joke. It is, after all, only the second film by writer/director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen NOT to be set at least a few years in the past (“Raising Arizona” being the other one), and yet it seems to belong there. Instead of doing a period piece, like usual, they’ve done an homage.

Or maybe it had to be set in 2003. The cavalier attitudes toward marriage and divorce exhibited by the central characters would have seemed out of place in 1940s society. Only in the 21st century could a character work to get his philandering, unfaithful client 100 percent of the assets in his divorce settlement without being viewed as a jackal by his fellow citizens.

George Clooney is that jackal, divorce attorney Miles Massey. He’s legendary in the business. He drafted a pre-nuptial agreement so ironclad that law schools now teach it to their students. When a client tells him, “My wife has me between a rock and a hard place,” he replies, “That’s her job. You should respect that.” And then he gets his client out from between the rock and the hard place and leaves the wife with nothing. He does this a lot.

But success has made Massey complacent. He wants a challenge. Then he meets Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of the aforementioned philandering husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann), caught on tape by devoted private investigator Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer). Massey is Rex’s attorney, and as such must protect his interests and assets. But it won’t be easy: Marylin, it seems, does this sort of thing for a living. She loves wealthy men, and loves to take everything when she divorces them. She never loses, but neither does Massey. One of them is bound for disappointment.

Thus begins a plot that is pure romantic-comedy, but marked by dialogue (which the Coens co-wrote with “Big Trouble” screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) that is pure screwball. There is “Who’s on First?”-style banter, accompanied by highly literate lines spoken even by characters you wouldn’t expect to be so literate. (As is often the case with the Coens, even the characters who only have one or two lines are as quirky and memorable as the leads.)

George Clooney loves to be a clown, and his enthusiasm here is contagious. He can stare down a witness with great severity, then shoot the judge a lightning-quick smarmy smile, all with perfectly fluidity and enviable comic timing.

He is well-partnered with Catherine Zeta-Jones, all elegance and conniving beauty, and no stranger to playing devilish women (“Chicago,” anyone?). She is a soft balance to Clooney’s buffoonery.

Billy Bob Thornton also has some priceless moments as Marylin’s post-divorce sucker, and Richard Jenkins — the dead dad on “Six Feet Under” — gives marvelous befuddlement as her attorney. (He is especially fond of shouting “Objection!” in court without first coming up with the grounds for one.) And let’s not forget Geoffrey Rush, a TV producer whose cheating wife had the good fortune to hire Miles Massey as her divorce attorney….

As funny as the film is, it is not a classic. It will be funny with a few more viewings, and a few years from now, it will fun to catch 30 minutes of it here and there when it plays endlessly on Comedy Central or somewhere. It doesn’t have the sheer creative brilliance of “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” for example, or the mad lunacy of “Raising Arizona,” to name two of the Coens’ other great films. But it’s nice for now, and it has the funniest death of the year. Watch and see if you don’t agree with me.

B+ (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, some sexuality and sexual dialogue, a lot of mid-range profanity, some violence.)