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movie review by Gary Johnson

Go to: the official web site for
Trial and Error

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]
In the early '80s, Michael Richards played on ABC's Fridays, an ill-fated attempt to copy NBC's Saturday Night Live. At times, the script must have said nothing more than "act goofy." He'd pretend to be a little boy playing soldiers on a hill of mud. He'd create the explosions and act out the struggles between soldiers, all while thrashing on the ground. That was it for five minutes. Few people laughed. It was sad.


Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels in Trial and Error.

(©1997
New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.)

On Fridays, Richards' spastic characters could occasionally be hysterically funny, but more often than not he wasn't getting any decent material to work with. Well, times have changed. Seinfeld gave Richards a character he could explore, a wonderfully complex and bizarre creation that could somehow simultaneously charm us and revolt us: "he's a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can't look away." And with that character, Richards showed us one of the great comic supporting characters in the history of television.





















Now he brings a similar character to the big screen in Trial and Error. You'll see many of Kramer's trademark traits--clumsiness, the harebrained schemes, the dedication to his friends, etc.--and once again, thankfully, Richards gets some good material.


Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels.

(©1997
New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.)

He plays a character named Ricky Rietti. Ricky's friend, a workaholic lawyer named Charles Tuttle (Jeff Daniels), is getting married and Ricky wants to throw a bachelor's party ("If it weren't for me, all you'd ever do is work!"), but on the eve of the marriage, Charlie gets assigned to a fraud case by his boss. He has to travel across California and into a small town, Paradise Bluffs, Nevada. Well, Ricky won't let a little thing like a few hundred miles come between Charlie and a bachelor's party, so he brings the party to Charlie. And to make a long story short, Charlie ends up in no shape to walk into court. Being a loyal friend, however, Ricky does what any good friend would do (who doesn't mind committing a felony), he walks into court and impersonates Charlie. However, he doesn't know anything about law. He's an actor by trade (who acts out fight scenes from gangster movies as his audition material for movie roles). All he has to say is "Your honor, my client requests a continuance." But the prosecuting lawyer won't stand for a continuance, and before he knows it, he's in the middle of a court battle.


Charlize Theron in Trial & Error.

(©1997 New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.)

As long as the filmmakers stick to courtroom scenes and scenes between Ricky and Charlie, Trial and Error is a very funny movie. Richards has spent the better part of a decade honing his bemused-but-confident shtick as Kramer, and he has the role worked to perfection. Ricky initially just wants to get the case over with. He sees it as "a walk-on." But before he knows it, the role has turned into the biggest of his career. While Charlie uses flash cards to signal Ricky what to say in court, Ricky frequently takes off on his own, not being able to resist milking the spotlight. "You've got your style, I've got mine," he says to Charlie.

Richards brings a charming brand of na´vetÚ (mixed with bravado) to these scenes. His face is part little boy and part "hipster dufus" (don't tell Kramer I said that). He always means well but he just can't help himself. Some things are just too tempting.

Meanwhile, Jeff Daniels actually gets most of the pratfalls. With movies such as Dumb and Dumber to his credit, Daniels has quickly become one of the best physical comedians in Hollywood. In Trial and Error, Richards actually is more restrained than Daniels. While Richards must remain relatively composed as Ricky Rietti, Daniels gets to show us Charlie falling apart. As Ricky continues to guide the case in court, Daniels becomes a ball of raw nerves, ready to explode at his own impotence. It's a very funny performance.

Unfortunately, however, the screenwriters decided they needed a "plot" to help tie everything together and provide a way for the characters to grow. So they give the movie a trio of painfully shallow female characters. We get 1) Charlie's fiancée, a rich bitch who constantly haggles with decorators and caterers about her upcoming wedding, 2) an angelic, forever-forgiving waitress who falls for Charlie and shows him the possibility of a simpler, less hectic life, and 3) a scrappy prosecuting attorney who just wants to put a criminal behind bars, but finds herself attracted to Ricky. Well, woman #1 has to be a bitch so that Charlie has an excuse for changing his life. Woman #2 has to be perfection personified so that Charlie will be willing to give up everything for her. And woman #3 has to be there so that Richards can get paired with an unlikely partner. Alexandra Wentworth is good as Charlie's fiancée and Charlize Theron as the waitress is so damned cute you'll just want to give her a big hug, but their roles have little depth and only exist to shove forward a creaky, predictable story. Meanwhile, Jessica Steen's prosecuting attorney role has some meat to it, but she's only there so that the mechanical, romantic subplot with Ricky can blossom.

Director Jonathan Lynn, who also directed another very funny courtroom movie My Cousin Vinny, handles the comedy like an old pro. He directs with an understated style that works well in opposition to the frantic comedy. Part of the pleasure of the movie is the calmness that surrounds the actors, while we know everything is actually ready to explode.

If only the filmmakers had relied more on the characters of Charlie and Ricky, and less on the plot contrivances, Trial and Error could have become a great comedy. As is, we get idealized women--an angel, a bitch, and, literally, a dream-like vision of a perfect lawyer--and the idealization only blunts the comedy.


Trial and Error Web site

New Line Cinema Web site

A New Line Cinema Presentation

THE CAST

Richard RiettiMichael Richards
Charles TuttleJeff Daniels
Billie TylerCharlize Theron
Elizabeth GardnerJessica Steen
Judge Paul Z. GraffAustin Pendleton
Benny GibbsRip Torn
TiffanyAlexandra Wentworth
JacquelineJennifer Coolidge
WhitfieldLawrence Pressman
Dr. StoneDale Dye
Dr. BrownMax Casella
THE FILMMAKERS
Directed byJonathan Lynn
Produced byGary Ross
Jonathan Lynn
Screenplay bySara Bernstein &
Gregory Bernstein
Story bySara Bernstein &
Gregory Bernstein
and Cliff Gardner
Director of PhotographyGabriel Beristain
Production DesignerVictoria Paul
Music byPhil Marshall
Costume DesignerShay Cunliffe
EditorTony Lombardo
Associate ProducersJane DeVries Cooper
Edward Lynn
Executive ProducersMary Parent
Allen Alsobrook
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