Talented stars rescue 'Trial and Error'
June 6, 1997
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
Web posted at: 6:04 p.m. EDT (2204 GMT)
(CNN) -- "Trial and Error," starring Michael Richards and
Jeff Daniels, is a whole lot better than I expected it to be,
which is to say that it's a whole lot better than awful.
Consider the warning signs. The film is directed by Jonathan
Lynn, who is responsible for "My Cousin Vinny," a silly
little contraption of a movie for which Marisa Tomei
accidentally won an Oscar. Amiable, if not one of the great
moments in cinematic history, this is not a film that needs
to be remade. Even a 30-second TV commercial reveals that
"Trial and Error" contains so many nods to "Vinny," its plot
is a virtual nervous tic.
Jeff Daniels plays a lawyer named Charlie Tuttle who is about
to marry Tiffany (Alexandra Wentworth), the daughter of his
powerful boss. Wentworth's character is, as is always the
case in this kind of setup, a selfish, snooty, neurotic child
masquerading as a woman. Is Daniels going to find an honest,
loving, yet incredibly hot movie-type babe to take her place?
The answer, of course, is yes, but I'm getting ahead of
Shortly before the wedding, Charlie's father-in-law to be
sends him to a desert town in Nevada to take care of a client
who's on trial for fraud. He's been caught selling mail
order pennies for $17.99, calling them "copper engravings" of
Abraham Lincoln. The shyster is played by Rip Torn of "The
Larry Sanders Show." Torn is a truly fantastic comic actor,
but aside from one amusing speech near the end of the film,
he's shamefully wasted here.
Charlie's goofball best friend, an unemployed actor named
Richard, is played by Michael Richards, who, in case you've
been in a coma for the past seven or eight years, is Kramer
on the brilliant NBC Must See TV staple, "Seinfeld."
Richards is arguably the most talented physical comedian in
TV history. Personally, I'll take Kramer setting his hair on
fire while lighting a cigar over Lucy cramming chocolate
candies down her blouse any day of the week. You can't pull
off the kind of near-alien stuff Richards does week-in and
week-out on "Seinfeld" without being a very gifted actor, and
his transition to the big screen is seamless. (Before his TV
success, he had smallish roles in such films as "Whoops
Apocalypse," and "UHF." I don't remember them either.)
His funniest moment in "Trial and Error" is his most overtly
Kramer-esque. During an audition, he plays a scene from his
favorite mob film, in which his character gets punched and
kicked by several henchman. The problem is that he's
auditioning solo, which compels him to whip himself around
the stage, leap face-first into walls, and roll around on the
floor as if he's being beaten silly by a team of ghosts.
Richard sets the plot in motion by following Charlie to the
desert town where the trial is set, and throwing him a
bachelor party. The night before his initial courtroom
appearance, Charlie gets drunker than a skunk, beaten up by
bikers, and whacked-out on pain pills. (The next morning,
the only thing he can manage to utter in his mental fog is
the hilarious non sequitur, "Don Fernando has many cattle.
Are these all the women of your tribe?") Richard has no
choice but to appear in court as Charlie, or so you would
have to believe in order to watch the movie. Never mind that
he has no concept of law or lawyers.
That's about it. The rest is a grab bag of funny and
not-so-funny gags in which Richards randomly shouts out
lawyer terms like "objection" and "leading the witness" to
the consternation of an increasingly perturbed judge (Austin
Richards' role at this point, though still tinged with
Kramer-isms, is unexpectedly verbal in its conception. Some
of his wandering arguments are quite enjoyable, including his
decision to use the famous "Twinkie Defense." Never mind
that, as Daniels heatedly points out, "You don't get a sugar
high and commit mail fraud." Dale Dye also has a great,
loopy scene as a quack nutritionist who argues for the
defense that Twinkies are basically the same thing as
cocaine. Personally, I agree.
Daniels' character soon drifts from the courtroom proceedings
and starts romancing Billie, a local waitress played by the
very charming Charlize Theron. Though her subplot is nowhere
near as much fun as the courtroom stuff, this performance
will probably make Theron a light comedy star.
Best known as the sex kitten in "Two Days in the Valley,"
Theron displays the fresh-scrubbed look of Ashley Judd and
has a sweet way of delivering lines that nearly makes you
melt. She's a textbook Dream Girl, but with enough "girl
next door" in her to make her appealing on something other
than a sexual level. I anxiously await bigger and better
roles for a very promising actress.
The movie wears out its welcome in the last half hour, but
for a not-completely-idiotic summer comedy, "Trial and Error"
holds up its end of the bargain quite ably. My main qualm is
that a cast this talented shouldn't have to wrestle with such
erratic material. Hopefully Daniels and Richards (who make a
great team) will get another shot in the future.
"Trial and Error" contains mild profanity and a little bit of
lounging around in bed between Daniels and Theron. Kids
might not get the courtroom humor, but "Liar Liar" has made
$9 billion, so what do I know? Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.
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