Miles Massey, a successful LA divorce lawyer, first meets gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth when he is hired by her millionaire husband to crush her crippling divorce suit. Though sparks fly, Massey trounces her in court. But that's not the last he will see of the one-woman bank account hoover...
Although the Coen brothers have a solid gold critical reputation and an equally adoring fanbase, they've never quite been able to grab the brass ring with a balls-out box-office hit that plays outside their catchment area - until now.
Unabashedly commercial, crowd-tickling stuff, this dazzling screwball comedy - following proudly in the footsteps of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder - stars George Clooney at his most charming and Catherine Zeta-Jones doing what she does best (however little that is) in an immediately accessible story about avarice, divorce and love, in that order. Tight as a drum, glamorous and exquisitely funny, this one should earn them enough cash to make five more offbeat minor masterpieces like The Man Who Wasn't There - and the Coens deserve that as much as we do.
While the leads are every bit as charismatic as you'd expect, with Clooney on 'Dapper Dan Man' form as the Cary Grant-esque Massey and Zeta-Jones showing an admirable facility for old-school quickfire patter, the movie is peppered in typical Coen style with top-notch turns from character actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush) and cameos from striking bit-part players with freakish physiognomies.
Think about the "funny lookin'" scene from Fargo and multiply it to the nth degree: there's a surly blue-collar waitress who bristles at a snooty request for a green salad ("What other fuckin' colour is it gonna be?"), an asthmatic gangster called Wheezy Joe and an effeminate, poodle-carrying baron whose courtroom testimony must surely be one of the funniest scenes committed to film. Ever.
In fact, there's so much musicality in the lightning-quick dialogue, you'd almost think you were watching a song-and-dance number from the golden age of MGM. Key to the action is shady private eye Gus Petch (played by the improbably named Cedric The Entertainer), whose catchphrase "I'm gonna nail yo' ass" runs through the film like a leitmotif and finally provides the payoff.
And, like a musical, the film counterpoints major notes with subtle tones, providing broad laughs with its almost slapstick routines, while at the same time satirising the modern concept of love and the horrible commercialisation of the marriage industry - from the garish kitsch of a Vegas wedding chapel to the mercenary combat of the divorce court.
For longstanding Coen fans, the only disappointment might be that it's not as visually flashy as we're used to, but one suspects this was a noble sacrifice to avoid frightening off mainstream viewers. But watching this film, and seeing such a superb script brought to life, one can only wonder why no other star-driven romcoms made today - pay attention, Jim Carrey - are so finely-tuned, smart, sophisticated and memorable.
If the masses don't take to this, there's no hope for any of us. After all, how can you not love a movie that has a lawyer objecting on the grounds of "poetry recitation", a wealthy fish trader who's so powerful he is tuna, or that features a magazine called Living Without Intestines?
The Coens' first mainstream romantic comedy is a superb hijacking of an ailing art form - short, sharp and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. Zeta-Jones shines in a tailor-made role, but this is mostly a wonderful vehicle for Clooney, framing his matinee-idol looks but playing to his sublime comic timing.
Reviewed by Damon Wise