Movie Review: Trial and Error (1997)

Daniels and Richards primo comic duo ___ 7/10
Review by Brian Wright

Trial and ErrorWritten by Sara Bernstein
Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Richard Rietti: Maybe he’s the person that he conned the most. I mean we all do that, you know. We all keep a little bit of ourselves hidden. Cuz if we didn’t, well, then we’d have to look at who we are. Who we really are. And if we didn’t like it, well, we’d have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Take a break and return to the late 90s for a unique Hollywood offering that few people were aware of at the time, whether from poor marketing or simple inattention. Trial and Error takes the established screen actor at the time, Jeff Daniels (Gettysburg, Fly Away Home), and combines the kinetic TV presence, Kramer (Michael Richards), from Seinfield to accomplish an extremely funny and worthy satire suggesting the Biblical adage, “What shall it profit a man to win the whole world yet lose his own soul?”

Michael Richards … Richard Rietti
Jeff Daniels … Charles Tuttle
Charlize Theron … Billie Tyler
Jessica Steen … Elizabeth
Austin Pendleton … Judge Paul Z. Graff
Rip Torn … Benny Gibbs
Alexandra Wentworth … Tiffany
Jennifer Coolidge … Jacqueline

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Trial is also one of the early films from now-superstar and totally forever-hottie, Charlize Theron (preceded by minor parts in 2 Days in the Valley and That Thing You Do). She plays Billie, a college-age girl who landed in a one-horse, county-seat town in Nevada, of all places, majestically named Paradise Bluff… where she tends bar and works for the one-and-only l hotel. Naturally, a young woman of her looks has no admirers or even hangers on, and when hotshot attorney Tuttle (Jeff Daniels) arrives to help his boss and soon-to-be father-in-law straighten out a legal hassle, she takes an immediate liking to him.

Tuttle is in a bind, though. We watch him at the outset of the film walking toward the swank 37th floor office suite he is filling, having just made partner in his father-in-law’s prestigious law firm; he’s going to be married to Tiffany (Alexandra Wentworth) within a week and all the accouterments demanded by life at this social pinnacle bear down upon him: he chastises his secretary, “Call that furniture guy and tell him my desktop is supposed to be in burl, not onyx, burl… antique burl, with a satin finish!” On top of all the preparations and Tiffany’s constant complaining about wedding preparations, the boss, on a moment’s notice, sends Charles to Paradise Bluff. The boss’s wife’s sleazy cousin Benny Gibbs (Rip Torn) is facing trial for fraud, and all Tuttle needs to do is move for a continuance.

Not so easy. Tuttle’s best friend from college days, a struggling actor named Richard Rietti (Michael Richards), has planned a bachelor’s party. Now, with Tuttle being sent to the desert, the deal is off. Or is it? Richard conspires quickly with his acting school buddies to reach the hotel in Paradise Bluff before Tuttle; the entourage greets Charles complete with blowup doll and a poor boy’s smattering of adult beverages. They start out in the hotel bar, with Tuttle drinking a Long-Island Iced Tea concoction that Billie prepares…  several.

Shortly thereafter Charles tries to adjudicate a barroom disagreement over a slot machine payoff, which officially starts the comedy part of the romantic comedy. Daniels is a scream. Incapacitated, Tuttle cannot represent Benny Gibbs at all; Rietti decides to pretend to be Benny’s attorney. Which provides the grist to the deeper satire. Here, the movie belongs to Richards, and the analogy of lawyering to acting is brought center stage… complete with reference to the gyrations of Gerry Spence. Richards is perfect showing how a good performance can make up for bad legalese. The movie takes several biting yet friendly jabs at what has come to afflict the practice of law in our time.

Tuttle and Billie? The romantic part of the romantic comedy is a satisfying complement to the satiric thrust. The moral of the story: what’s more important in life, ‘stuff’ or love? All in all the pacing is comfortable and the minor performances are solid, though I think the filmmakers could have written the Judge’s lines with a little less contrived exasperation. Charlize Theron and Rip Torn—even Jessica Steen as the prosecutor meets the modest needs of her role with gusto—add some truly winning touches; the film is simply a pleasant little package for a modern morality play. Maybe not a full cure for depression, but a healthy toke of herbal refreshment following an off day. Skillfully tickles the funny bone.

And for a special treat, a recurring theme of breaking free, the movie gives us a Desert Vision on a Harley. See for yourself. The stuff that dreams are made of.

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