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New Line Home Cinema presents
"It's a hell of a challenge, don't you think, trying to win a case without even being in it?"
DVD ReviewI don't know if it's a knock against the film or the state of the American media, but Legalese, a 1998 courtroom satire that aired as a TNT Original movie of the week, looks pretty stale seven years out. The story of cagey lawyer Norman Keane (James Garner), who specializes in defending guilty-as-sin celebrities, came out post-O.J., when it was already in fashion for the media to treat big money defense attorneys like celebrities themselves (heck, these days we have the news of Michael Jackson recruiting Scott Peterson's lawyer reported to us as breathlessly as the A-Rod trade). Of course, the movie goes one better—Keane has been so overexposed he's now forced to rethink his scheming in order to turn himself into an even bigger star.
Keane has just come off of a big case—and tarnished his reputation by shamelessly defending someone that was obviously a criminal—when into his office walks minor film star Angela Beale (Gina Gershon), newly accused of first degree murder. It seems she shot her brother-in-law, claiming it was self-defense and an attempt to protect his abused sister, though all evidence indicates she was sleeping with the guy only a few days before. Keane knows he can win it, but he doesn't want the public to hate him. Luckily, he runs into fresh-faced law school grad Roy Guyton (Edward Kerr), a charming boy with "a bit of Iowa" in his voice. Literally runs into him, with his car, and when Guyton is able to match his litigation mumbo-jumbo, Keane realizes he may have found just what he needs to put himself back on top.
Guyton is green, but, Keane explains, if Roy takes the Beale case, he can wear an earpiece and take direction from his mentor right in the middle of a trial. It's not that Keane has an interest in Beale's plight—she's just as opportunistic as he is, and uses her "it was abuse" defense to finagle herself a talk show, Taking Back the Night with Angela Beale—he's just in it for the challenge (after all, only a real genius could win a case without ever setting foot in the courtroom).
Legalese wants to be a cutting satire, but it never quite gets there, mostly because it simply isn't funny. The characters are likeable enough. Garner has the charisma to be both the villain of the piece and a father figure for Roy, and Kerr is appropriately low-key. But aside from a few good gags (including a good bit where Roy tells a reporter he is wearing an earpiece because of nerve deafness, winning him the support of a nerve deafness advocacy group), but all in all, it doesn't really say anything. Screenwriter Billy Ray had the same sort of trouble with Shattered Glass, about a writer for a major magazine who was forced to admit he'd made up most of his stories—it's all surface, nothing underneath, no hint of some larger satirical point. Director Glenn Jordan doesn't do him any favors with his decidedly old-school TV camerawork and languid pacing.
That's not to say the film isn't entertaining. Mary-Louise Parker has a small role as Garner's assistant, so taken with Roy that she keeps trying to get him to have sex with her during business hours, and provides some amusement (though she doesn't seem to be trying too hard to do any more than that). Keane, whose lifelong ambition has been to land an interview with Ted Koppel, has to settle for tabloid vulture Brenda Whitlass (Kathleen Turner), host of a show called Scandals Unlimited, which turns every development in the Beale case into a flashy news segment (upon the revelation Beale's sister was abused, the show airs a piece called Eat, Drink and Beat Mary). But other than these passing amusements, there is little in the satire of Legalese that qualifies as comedy, perhaps because the whole televised trial sideshow has only gotten more popular in the last seven years, and none of this seems the least bit over the top.
Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Legalese looks pretty good on DVD. Shot in widescreen, it features a very clean image free of excessive grain or digital anomalies. Colors are muted and the image looks a little flat, but I noticed no significant problems with black level or edge enhancement.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Legalese is presented in both DTS and DD 5.1, not that it really requires either. Both mixes are very front-heavy, with clean presentation of dialogue and good separation of sound effects across the front mains, but the surrounds stay quiet pretty much throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Amongst Friends, Kansas City, Proof
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: Extras are limited to trailers for Amongst Friends, Kansas City, and Proof.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsLegalese is an entertaining courtroom satire with a strong cast, but it's never much more than a pleasant diversion. It's hard to laugh at unscrupulous lawyer gags when you can flip the channel and shake your head as a similar story plays out in real life.
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