John "The Scribbler" Grisham and those lawyer shows on TV should probably get three to five in the Big House for the attendant crime wave they've started--that is, for fomenting an epidemic of allegedly hilarious legal comedies that don't withstand much audience grilling.
Jonathan Lynn's Trial and Error is clearly inspired by an earlier Lynn effort, My Cousin Vinny, in which rookie lawyer Joe Pesci, a child of the Queens pavements, journeyed to the mysterious South to take on a case and a culture that completely baffled him. It was a pretty amusing piece of work, especially when compared with this poor relative of a thing that hobbles along on basically the same premise.
Herein (our designated legal term) the lawyer is one Charles Tuttle (Jeff Daniels), an uptight overachiever who's won a partnership by contracting to marry the boss's insufferable daughter (Alexandra Wentworth) but who first must fall by a little town in Nevada to get a continuance in a bush-league fraud case. Enter Charlie's goofy pal Ricky Rietti (Michael Richards), yet another out-of-work actor with dreamy ambitions.
When Charlie gets wasted at an impromptu bachelor party, Ricky poses next morning as the lawyer. Right. No continuance. No comic invention, either. While the physical humor piles up, the friends reverse roles, eventually fall in love with a pair of convenient blond beauties (Charlize Theron and Jessica Steen)--one a free-spirited waitress, the other the prosecutor in the case--and inevitably move on to redefine themselves, as required by the law of cliche.
Okay, then. Veteran Rip Torn is entertaining enough as the mail-order con man (aren't we all con folk? the movie insists on asking) who's been selling "copper engravings of the Great Emancipator" for $17.99. They are--what else?--pennies. Wentworth, too briefly on the screen, is terrific as the fiancee from hell ("I told her, 'Don't be a bridesmaid if you can't wear peach'"). And diminutive character man Austin Pendleton does another nice turn as the long-suffering judge.
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But neither Richards, taking a break from his Kramer duties on Seinfeld, nor the consistently overheated Daniels can salvage a comedy jam-packed with stock lawyer-bashing, stock romantic enlightenment and stock gags about the lawyer-as-actor and vice versa. The identity charades in Trial suggest those in Tootsie or A Night at the Opera only in the vaguest sense, and when our peacemaker Charlie gets knocked cold by a pair of rednecks fighting in a bar, you wish he'd stay down for the count.
Screenwriters Sara and Gregory Bernstein (he is, by his own description, a "recovering lawyer") provide the occasional funny line, and the movie's big falling-through-the-courtroom-ceiling-onto-the-defense-table scene is slapstick sublime. The rest is about as funny as a real trial.
Trial and Error. Screenplay by Sara Bernstein and Gregory Bernstein. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. With Michael Richards, Jeff Daniels, Charlize Theron, Jessica Steen and Rip Torn.