TRIAL AND ERROR (1997) **
The concept is OK, I suppose, and it has its moments, but not enough of them. The Britisher who made it was a collaborator of Eric Idle of Monty Python fame; the co-author of the superbly witty TV satire series "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister"; a performer; and starting in 1990, a film director as well. His first movie, "Nuns On The Run," was a forgettable cross-dressing comedy with some nice gags, but these were seldom followed through. It waited a long time before it picked up speed. The same thing happened to his next film,"My Cousin Vinny" and in the Eddie Murphy vehicle "The Distinguished Gentleman. " The tempo got reversed in last year's "Sgt. Bilko. " Its first part was excellent and lively, its second part dragged.
"Trial and Error" does not have the rhythmic unevenness of the earlier Lynn pictures, yet it shares their inability to make a tight, coherent whole. (The first part of "Bilko" is an exception because it is a transposed TV series that does not lose from being episodic). Director Lynn seems more at home with short spurts and sketches rather than with long distance running.
Like "My Cousin Vinny," "Trial end Error" is a lawyer-in-the-courtroom comedy, a bill of goods sold on the strength of "Seinfeld"'s Michael Richards who gets billed above co-star Jeff Daniels.
As one of the 789 people in the US. who watch "Seinfeld" only now and then, I do not feel qualified to pass judgment on Richards's TV persona. Yet for the sake of peace and harmony I am willing to accept the general opinion that Richards has much talent. I am even willing to concede that he does nicely in "Trial and Error" and that without him the movie would have been even more boring.
Charles (Daniels) is a Yale-educated lawyer who has clerked for a Supreme Court Justice. In his very first job he made partner in a prestigious (and, 'tis hinted, unscrupulous) law firm. The sudden rise comes because he is about to marry blonde Tiffany, the boss's daughter. She is merely outlined as a spoiled, air-headed socialite brat.
Charles's best man-to be is childhood buddy Richard (Richards), a mostly unemployed actor who, from a short, funny audition we witness, is no Brando or Olivier. He is preparing a bachelor party that gets postponed as Charles is dispatched by his father-in-law-to-be to a no-town in Nevada with orders to defend a relative (Benny Gibbs, played by Rip Torn) accused of fraud. Gibbs has been selling to collectors, for well over $20 a piece, "copper engravings of Abraham Lincoln " that turn out to be pennies. This scam is so dumb and preposterous that right away it removes any connection of the movie to reality.
In Nevada, Charles finds that Richard plus a few pals have preceded him in order to hold the bachelor party. In the local hotel's bar, and in a sequence that is entirely forced and artificial, Charles gets in a tussle that puts him in a bloodied up and very hazy state. Just as artificially, by the following day, having swallowed more pain pills than prescribed, Charles is in no shape to appear in court. For reasons both too phony to explain, the two friends exchange names, with Richard posing as lawyer Charles, and Charles as Richard's assistant.
Things happen, unevenly divided between courtroom and exterior scenes. Developments get telegraphed non-stop from the film's opening, mostly having to do with several blond women. The instant we meet wife-to-be Tiffany we know that the marriage will not take place. In Nevada, when we meet cute, blond waitress Billie, we know that she and Charles will end in each arms. When we watch Richard watching the distant vision of a woman on a motorcycle, we know that another twosome will eventually materialize. Even though the biker is hardly visible, we can guess which blond she'll turn out to be. The ancient cliche of antagonists who end up lovey-dovey is alive and well. What we cannot guess is the end where Charles and Tiffany go to bed together, but the next morning waitress Billie replaces Tiffany for good. Whether another improbability or else a cynical bit of morals, the episode can make you uncomfortable.
Essentially the movie welds two familiar sub-genres: the impostor and the not-to-be wedding. Operating in spurts and fits of unequal interest, straining beyond belief its farcical elements, the courtroom shenanigans can reach soporific levels. Curiously though, as romantic aspects increase, the balance of the courtroom scenes improves. This is partly caused by a mock-pathetic testimony by the enormously talented Rip Torn, partly by Austin Pendleton (the Judge) whose series of reactions are original, clever samples of increasing irritation.
A small saving grace is in the visuals of Nevada's landscape. The same countryside also holds the odd sight (and site) of something like a graveyard of toilets, the shooting of which is, for some reason, a means to get rid of hang-ups. Perhaps there is a deep Freudian meaning to this. Or could it be a belated homage to Lynn's compatriot Dr. Crapper who invented the modern flush toilet?
The prosecution rests.