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Reaching A 'Legal' Verdict

June 20, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Whenever you put a title like "Legal Eagles" on a movie, you're playing into the hands of film critics and headline writers. You know that it is either going to soar, or be convicted.

Many of the critics who have rendered their verdicts on "Legal Eagles," a $33-million comedy that opened Wednesday, have found everyone involved in the caper--director Ivan Reitman and stars Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah--guilty of something.

"Murder in the Worst Degree" is the headline on Richard Corliss' lacerating review in this week's Time magazine. Corliss, summing up for the prosecution, ended his review with "Verdict on 'Legal Eagles': guilty of genre sabotage. Cast dismissed."

"Redford's Bad Day in Court" is the way USA Today headlined its review, which ended with the advice that the film "plead nolo contendere and throw itself on the mercy of the court."

The Daily News' Kirk Honeycutt skipped the legal puns in his indictment, but did manage to involve another kind of bird. "Legal Eagles," Honeycutt wrote, "is the Spruce Goose of comedies."

On these pages, The Times' Kevin Thomas called "Legal Eagles" "inept, incoherent and charmless" and concluded that the film "fails the bar with a thud." The headline said: " 'Legal Eagles' Loses Its Entertainment Case."

A survey of 20 reviews on "Legal Eagles" turned up 12 nays, 6 yeas and a couple of equivocations. Two of the positive reviews were in the industry trades, Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, both of which predicted good box-office returns.

The returns are going to have to be sensational if Universal Pictures is to recoup its expenses on the film. With advertising and other costs added in, "Legal Eagles" has probably run up a tab of around $44 million.

The movie, which is set in New York, did a lot better with New York critics.

"Real Eagles" read the headline over Kathleen Carroll's glowing, 3 1/2-star review in the New York Daily News. Carroll said Redford's performance may be the most engaging of his career and called "Legal Eagles" a "zippy, wonderfully played re-creation of the gabby romantic comedies of the '40s."

Rex Reed called the film a "thrill-packed humdinger" in the New York Post, under a headline that read "Redford and Winger Soar in 'Legal Eagles.' "

Vincent Canby of the New York Times had a mixed reaction to the movie. He raved about Debra Winger's performance, saying that she may now be ready to play anything but "The Trojan Women." But, overall, he felt the movie was a "teen-age comedy populated by adults."

You won't find many puns in the New York Times' headlines, and restraint was certainly shown in this instance. "Film: Ivan Reitman's 'Legal Eagles.' "

SCREW CAPS: When the marketing people at Walt Disney Productions decided to adopt the screw as the symbol for its Touchstone release, "Ruthless People," they knew it would be controversial. They didn't know they would have to pull out the dictionary to defend it.

"It is controversial, we knew that," said Robert Levin, head of marketing for Disney. "But it is an effective symbol for the movie. Everyone will come out of the movie saying 'I got it.' "

Unfortunately for Disney, a few people felt they got it right away, and found it offensive. Levin said the studio polled newspapers to see if they would accept an ad with a line that our editors here won't let us repeat, and about half said no.

Technically, the word screw is getting a bad rap. As a verb connoting the exploitation or abuse of one person by another, which is the theme of "Ruthless People," it derives from the medieval use of the thumbscrew as a torture device.

You can look it up in Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary. It even cites an example: John Dean's testimony at the Watergate hearings.

In any event, Disney is plunging ahead with the summer's screwiest movie promotion. It has already shipped thousands of seven-inch brass screws to media people nationwide (each one has a "Ruthless People" flag attached to it) and everyone attending this weekend's previews around the country will be given a screw head (a variation on the arrow-through-the-head cap).

There also will be 16-foot screws installed in high-traffic areas in the major markets, Levin said, and the symbol will appear in newspaper and TV ads.

But nowhere will you see the word.

"The screw is a nice image, but we don't have to underline it," Levin said. "The word carries it over the top."

SQUEEZE PLAY: What is an independent exploitation film maker to do when television shows refuse to use clips from his film because they are considered too bizarre or violent?

He exploits the issue, of course.

In a series of television commercials, hastily shot one night early this week, producer Steven Paul appears on camera apologizing to viewers for not being able to show them scenes from "Never Too Young to Die" that he would like to show them.

"I'm desperate. I'm struggling to maintain so I don't get buried," Paul said, in explaining the rushed TV campaign. "We're up against $30 million to $40 million worth of advertising right now and we can't show anything."

Paul said one TV show returned seven different film clips from "Never Too Young to Die," saying each of them was too offensive to put on the air. The movie, which has been savaged by most of the critics who have bothered with it, stars Gene Simmons as a homicidal hermaphrodite who has a lead finger he uses as a lance.

"Never Too Young" cost $4.7 million to make, Paul said, and he has budgeted $3 million for advertising. But with the major studios taking up a lot of TV ad time, he said he was depending on those film clips to get his message out.

"This movie has the essence of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'Mad Max,' " Paul said. "I expected kids to immediately see the bizarre things in it and get behind it. But I haven't been able to get them in."

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