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Talented stars rescue 'Trial and Error'


June 6, 1997
Web posted at: 6:04 p.m. EDT (2204 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(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.

movie icon (2.4M/70 sec. "Trial & Error" movie trailer
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movie icon (4.6M/129 sec. "Trial & Error" movie trailer
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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 myself.


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 Pendleton).

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.

Case closed.

"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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