Dir: Joel Coen. 2003. 100 mins.

The Coen brothers paradox is simply stated: why have critical plaudits and a substantial international fanbase never translated into big box-office results' Fargo was praised to the skies but performed disappointingly; while O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens' best earner to date, did what it did thanks largely to the casting of George Clooney and the infectious bluegrass soundtrack. Clooney is back, paired with Catherine Zeta-Jones, in Intolerable Cruelty, which finally trashes the paradox. This is the Coen brothers' big, commercial breakout movie: and so it should be, in view of its estimated $60m budget.

An alimony farce about a successful Beverly Hills divorce lawyer who finally meets his match, Intolerable Cruelty - the title, a legal phrase, is one of the most common motivations for divorce - was produced by Brian Grazer (The Nutty Professor, A Beautiful Mind, 8 Mile). But this is no Hollywood sell-out for the Coens. They push the romantic comedy genre about as far as it can go in the direction of oddball satire without shafting the romance, and the film may in fact turn out to be a little too witty and hard-headed to warm up the sticks. However, to the great relief of those who shelled out so much money to make it happen, the co-stars gel magnificently, with Zeta-Jones' glacial poise and ferocious sense of purpose setting off, and being set off by, the Clooney character's glib bedside manner and overweening vanity. Most of all, though, Intolerable Cruelty is continually, and often hilariously, funny. It is The Lady Eve for the mobile phone generation.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, a Beverly hills divorce lawyer who is so successful he's bored out of his mind. Though he is the author of the most watertight pre-nuptial contract in the business, Massey is short on challenges - until a wealthy real estate developer, Rex Rexroth, signs him up to take on his scheming but apparently untouchable wife Marylin (Zeta-Jones), who has "nailed his ass" with video footage of a motel infidelity. Massey wins it for Rexroth in a classic courtroom scene full of kooky Coen characters and fast-paced wisecracks, earning Marilyn's undying animosity; though her payback is complicated by the fact that the fires of love, or at the very least lust, begin to smoulder between the two.

The film opens on Geoffrey Rush, who plays a scuzzy daytime TV producer, yowling along to The Boxer in his open-top Merc (the first of two great Simon and Garfunkel digs). Other memorable supporting roles are those of Billy Bob Thornton as a humourless and deeply stupid Texan oil tycoon; Jonathan Hadary as the poodle-toting Baron Krauss von Espy; and Irwin Keyes as asthmatic hitman Wheezy Joe, whose inhaler dependency provides one of the funniest visual gags we are likely to see in a film this side of Christmas.

But it's Clooney - bouncing back from the commercial setbacks of Solaris and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind - who really steals the show in a performance which must rank as his best to date. There is something of a parody of his own star status in his account of Miles Massey as a gorgeous, self-regarding bachelor with a clean teeth obsession and a bad case of ennui, just as there is more than a nod at popular perceptions of Zeta Jones' off-screen persona in her characters' combination of stunning babe looks and cool, calculating ambition. Deakin's photography combines Hollywood gloss with moments of fish-eye-lens kookiness; and the soundtrack is sufficiently catchy (the producers have even splashed out on an Elvis track, Suspicious Minds). With its A-league budget, Intolerable Cruelty was always going to be a risk; but UIP should recoup. The desperately down-market Italian title of this film - which translates as "First I marry you, then I bankrupt you" is some indication of just how broadly this intelligent comedy is being pitched.

Prod co: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment present a Brian Grazer Production, in association with Alphaville
Int'l sales: United International Pictures
Prod: Brain Grazer, Ethan Coen
Co-prods: John Cameron, James Whitaker
Scr: Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Prod des: Leslie McDonald
Ed: Roderick Jaynes
Music: Carter Burwell
Main cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Hermann, Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton