Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us introduce Exhibit A in this week’s case of “been there, done that”: the wheezing fish-out-of-water courtroom comedy “Trial and Error.” The evidence will show that the defendant, director Jonathan Lynn, should have quit while he was ahead with the painfully similar, infinitely superior “My Cousin Vinny.”
You remember Vinny - wise-guy Brooklyn lawyer, played by Joe Pesci. Got big laughs butting heads with the Alabama justice system. Well, he’s been replaced by “Seinfeld’s” Michael Richards, who proves all-too-qualified to play a man at odds with his environment. Stripped of his crack TV writers and regular ensemble, all the Kramer shtick in the world can’t rescue this unfortunate career turn.
It’s an ironic catastrophe, given the surface similarities between Kramer and “Trial and Error’s” Richard Rietti. Both characters are nobodies desperately trying to be somebodies, seeking vicarious kicks to fill their personal voids. The big difference: “Seinfeld” is pathetic and hilarious. “Trial and Error” is just pathetic.
The plot, for formality’s sake: Struggling actor Richard (Richards) wants to throw a raging bachelor party for his uptight lawyer buddy Charles (Jeff Daniels, still trying to live down “Dumb and Dumber”). Charles gets called out to small-town Nevada for a case; Richard follows, gets his friend too tanked to appear in court and steps in to take the case. Wacky shenanigans ensue.
Pratfall fans won’t be disappointed, as screenwriters Sara and Gregory Bernstein create plenty of opportunities for Richards to stumble about. See Kramer trip over the wastepaper basket. See Kramer fumble with a large book. See Kramer wrestle with the venetian blinds. Jim Carrey needn’t lose any rest.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, Richard and Charles are learning valuable life lessons. Seems Charles isn’t nuts about his spoiled fiancee (Alexandra Wentworth); earthy hotel waitress Charlize Theron is a better fit for the inexplicably new him. (Plus, she keeps a volume of Whitman in the back seat of her Jeep.) Richard, for his part, comes to realize that the world of justice can be - better sit down - unjust.
Rip Torn has a memorable moment as Richard’s sleazy client, who passes off pennies as “copper engravings” of President Lincoln. “Cousin Vinny” alum Austin Pendleton has some fun as the baffled judge. End of highlight reel.
“Trial and Error’s” chief offense is a biggie: It’s not funny.
But the salt in the wound comes with the film’s syrup-coated piety, part of an annoying comedy trend toward balancing mischief with ill-fitting, happily-ever-after certitude. Nothing could have saved this film, but it would have gone down better with a little less cheese.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Trial and Error” Locations: Lincoln Heights, Lyons, Showboat Credits: Directed by Jonathon Lynn, starring Jeff Daniels, Michael Richards, Alexandra Wentworth, Charlize Theron and Rip Torn. Running time: 1:38 Rating: PG-13