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Movie Review

Theron Lights Up Screen in Uneven 'Trial'

May 30, 1997|JOHN ANDERSON | FOR THE TIMES

Most big-budget, dream-cast comedies are a lot like pea soup: A creamy mass, with the occasional lump of ham.

"Trial and Error," starring "Seinfeld's" Michael Richards (in a very Kramer-esque performance), is a pretty soupy mess, but the croutons are fabulous--i.e. the statuesque Charlize Theron ("Two Days in the Valley"), with whom director Jonathan Lynn is either madly in love or knows a good thing when she comes into focus. If someone wanted to make someone else a star, it's hard to imagine a better route than Lynn takes with Theron, who brings the movie to its knees every time she comes on screen.

Which is saying something, given how hard everyone's working to make merry in a pretty silly film. Jeff Daniels is the uptight lawyer Charlie Tuttle, who has to skip the bachelor party arranged by his actor pal Richard Rietti (Richards) because his future father-in-law/boss has sent him out of town to win the unwinnable fraud trial of career liar Benny Gibbs (a terrific Rip Torn). Gibbs is on trial for selling copper engravings of Abraham Lincoln--pennies, to be precise--for $17.95 apiece. Richard arrives and takes Charlie on the town, where he gets drunk and has his lights put out by two locals. The justice system is imperiled.

*

Do you want me to explain how Richard has to handle the court case, while Charlie reassesses his romance with Tiffany (Alexandra Wentworth) and falls in love with waitress Billie (Theron)? I didn't think so.

There's a lot to hate about "Trial and Error," including the title. Are we supposed to assume that the judge (a very funny Austin Pendleton) knows that Richard isn't a lawyer? The way Lynn directs the courtroom scenes you have to as-

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Trial and Error'

Michael Richards: Richard Rietti

Jeff Daniels: Charlie Tuttle

Charlize Theron: Billie Tyler

Jessica Steen: Elizabeth Gardner

Austin Pendleton: Judge Paul Z. Graff

Rip Torn: Benny Gibbs

A Larger Than Life production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Jonathan Lynn. Producers Gary Ross, Lynn. Story by Sara Bernstein & Gregory Bernstein and Cliff Gardner. Screenplay by Sara Bernstein & Gregory Bernstein. Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Editor Tony Lombardo. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Phil Marshall. Production design Victoria Paul. Art director Philip J. Messina. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

sume so, but that sort of upends the entire premise. Of course, very little that goes on in court as Richard does battle with the savvy-but-not-that-savvy prosecutor Elizabeth Gardner (Jessica Steen) doesn't constitute an indictable offense, so a suspension of disbelief--think O.J. jury--is required.

Daniels, who seems to be making a career of playing straight man to physical comics (he starred with Jim Carrey in "Dumb & Dumber" for instance), is as bland as ever. Richards is doing Kramer. Steen is very good as the besieged district attorney and Theron just eats up the screen. As Billie, she knows how to stop a nosebleed, cure an anxiety attack, reads Walt Whitman and shotguns derelict appliances as a form of stress relief. Can she make soup? I don't know, but she knows how to make one palatable.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual content. Times guidelines: a few suggestive scenes.

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