|Trial and Error|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 November 1999|
TRIAL AND ERROR is a cheerful, entertaining but unsurprising comedy that develops its simple premise about as far as it could go. It's a great showcase for Michael Richards, whose movie appearances have been scant so far; Jeff Daniels again demonstrates that he's a great other half of a comedy team. He could support a comedy on his own, but has rarely been given the opportunity.
There's nothing very remarkable about the movie; it does its work professionally, provides some laughs (and blows some as well). The script by Sara and Gregory Bernstein is basically one-note, the trial at the heart of it all isn't very interesting, and overall we've been here before. But with a cast as good as this, even this kind of routine, if amusing, material seems better than it is.
Charlie Tuttle (Daniels) has just been made partner in a big Los Angeles law firm, mostly because he's about to marry the boss' daughter, Tiffany Whitfield (Jennifer Coolidge). As soon as we see her, we know he's never going to marry her; she's the standard rich bitch who exists solely to be discarded, though Coolidge certainly is drop-dead gorgeous. Tiffany is annoyed that Charlie's best friend, would-be actor Ricky Rietti (Richards) is scheduled to be his best man; Ricky is flamboyant and just not of the right class, but Charlie likes him.
The Big Boss orders Charlie to go over to the Nevada desert town of Paradise Bluff to defend their client Benny Gibbs (Rip Torn); the plot clumsily neglects to tell us for some times just why Gibbs is on trial in the first place, and never reveals how he managed to land such a prestigious firm -- in another state. Ricky rushes off to Paradise Bluff ahead of Charlie to throw him a satisfactory bachelor party. At the local bar, Charlie is impressed -- and who wouldn't be? -- by quick-witted, gorgeous waitress Billie Tyler (Charlize Theron), whose special drinks get Charlie so blasted he's still drunk in the morning, which isn't helped when he takes too much of his medicine.
Ricky's always looking for opportunities to prove himself as an actor, so when Charlie can't even stand up, Ricky takes over, telling Judge Paul Z. Graff (Austin Pendleton) that he is Charles Tuttle. Unfortunately, instead of being granted the routine continuance that Charlie expected, the judge and prosecutor Elizabeth Gardner (Jessica Steen) insist that the trial continue.
The now-sober Charlie is aghast -- because Ricky now must continue to pretend to be Charlie; impersonating a lawyer in court is a felony. Charlie tries to work out a way to help Ricky, but the judge is not amused, and Ricky keeps enthusiastically trying to improvise. So Charlie is kicked out of the courtroom, where he finds a sympathetic Billie. Things progress from here, as one of Ricky's bright ideas after another digs them in deeper and deeper. Then Tiffany shows up.
Michael Richards is a large part of the show in TRIAL AND ERROR; with the right material, he could be one of the great movie clowns. He's just handsome enough in a horse-faced way to make Gardner's being attracted to him convincing. He has a dancer's control over his long, gangly body and limbs, great timing, and a kind of crack-brained intensity reminiscent of Danny Kaye. He's a master of appearing to be just barely in control, as if he says the wrong word, everything will fly into flinders, including Richards himself.
Unlike most comedy-team movies, which this partially is, Daniels is not a complete contrast to Richards, but a kind of variation on a theme. He's already more conventional, more together than Richards, but not by a heck of a lot. It's as if Charlie is an actor, too, playing the part of a lawyer; when he can't fill the role, it's panic time. He's often funny, but, really, not often enough; some things he's required to do, like fall through a ceiling, or blow up discarded toilets, don't work the way they're intended, and Daniels is left twisting in the wind.
Fortunately, he's usually twisting next to Charlize Theron, who is a startlingly good actress for one so amazingly beautiful. While Daniels and Richards are giving comedy performances, she's real, a breezy, intelligent, outdoorsy girl whose life has been on hold for a while. Daniels' arrival, though, revs up her ideas about the future, and she very believably falls for him.
Jessica Steen's falling for Richards isn't as convincing, nor is the idea that she rides a motorcycle through the desert every night. It's so out of character for her part that you might will assume that's Charlize Theron on the bike. Steen tries hard, but her role is contrived, simply the woman for the Richards half of the team.
Rip Torn and Austin Pendleton are very good in supporting roles, even if Torn isn't given nearly enough to do. Again, the somewhat awkward script traps him: he's supposed to be a con man, and to wow the jury at the end of the film, but director Jonathan Lynn, who's hardly a master of comedy, required (or allowed) Torn to play the part so hammily the scene is completely unconvincing, even for a comedy.
But when Richards is going full steam, or Daniels is mooning over Theron, TRIAL AND ERROR comes close to actually sparkling; it's just another Hollywood comedy, but it's often a very funny one.
There's nothing special about the DVD, although it is presented in Dolby 5.1 digital. It does present both a "full frame" and letterboxed version of the film -- but this time, don't even consider the "full frame" image. The movie was mostly shot on desert locations in the Owens Valley in California, and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain takes full advantage of the wide screen and the bleakly attractive terrain. The movie has a surprisingly open-air feel, especially for a comedy, and looks simply wonderful.