“A Funny Thing Happened in Court Today”: Top Five Comedy Trial Scenes
by David Dabbs
I’m a movie-nerd. I was a member of the British Film Institute even before I went to Bar School (in the previous century there was just the one); and for the first three months of my studies at Bar School, I lived in a tiny bedsit in south London partly so that I could afford to make regular trips to the National Film Theatre. Obscure, beautifully shot, and above all grim stories of tragedy and betrayal – preferably in a foreign language (Japanese movies were my speciality) – allowed me to feel that I was being serious about my chosen art-form.
But eventually everyone needs to have a laugh.
Perhaps that is why the grim confines of the courtroom can provoke moments of unintentional humour. Ask any litigator: even though the result of a trial can have serious consequences for those involved – one defendant might go to prison, another might lose his home – there is something about the sense of impending doom which lends itself to unintentional moments of humour. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle noticed how incongruity provokes laughter: the expectation of one thing (the grim seriousness of the trial) but something else occurs “that gives a twist”.
Last time I introduced you to my favourite Court Scenes – really just a list of terrific movies featuring key story turning-points that take place in a courtroom. This time I’d like to introduce my top five “funny legal moments” – the movies in which the trial process becomes a venue for comedy. And remember: as a movie-nerd, I have the right to change my mind about this list from one week to the next!
As usual, in reverse order –
(5): Legally Blonde (2001) – w. Karen McCullah, d. Robert Luketic
A blonde “sorority queen”, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), decides to pursue her ex-boyfriend by following him into legal practice; only to discover that she has real talent and that her heart is moving toward another.
The movie starts by poking fun at the superficial obsessions of the “fashion-istas” so prominent in colleges renowned for the wealth of some of their students; and then, once Elle Woods starts her training contract, delivers regular laughs springing from the clash of cultures presented by this delightful “fish-out-of-water”.
One of the cases being run by her firm involves a young heiress accused of murdering her elderly husband. The client sacks lead counsel for his lack of trust, and demands that the totally inexperienced Elle should take over the cross-examination.
Any self-respecting advocate should blush at the number of cardinal rules being broken by our hero in the course of that particular success – only one issue per question; never combine challenges; never badger the witness etc – but when making a movie, time is money; so we must forgive the habit of writers desperate to keep the story racing along.
Another thing I appreciate about this movie is that the writer avoids the hackneyed Hollywood tradition of depicting lawyers as either overpaid fools or crooks. Instead the underlying theme is that talented lawyers can achieve good things; and that practising Law can be an honourable ambition for a young person.
Please avoid the sequel – mind-numbingly entitled “Legally Blond 2: Red, White and Blonde”; unless of course you are a fellow movie-nerd, when it is important to understand what makes a sequel fail so miserably. If you a normal movie-goer, just be warned that you will never get back those precious 95 minutes of your life.
(4): North by Northwest (1959) – w. Ernest Lehman, d. Alfred Hitchcock
Suave bachelor and New York advertising executive, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in sparkling form), answers the wrong telephone call and gets mistaken for a government agent by foreign spies determined to make him disappear.
So many great set-pieces, so little space to mention them all: the comedy auction bids, the wonderfully intimate “meet-cute” with Eva Marie Saint, the murderous crop-duster, and the final chase across Mount Rushmore. This was probably the movie which first introduced what was to become one of the iconic “tropes” of the American movie industry: the smooth-talking, cynical Englishman as antagonist (James Mason in full-rich mode).
I choose this fabulous romantic thriller for the laughs that come soon after our hero has confronted the villain for the first time: his goons force Thornhill to drink a bottle of bourbon before setting him up for a fatal car-crash – but our hero recovers enough to avoid death, if not his arrest for drunk-driving and subsequent appearance at Night Court.
(3): Bananas (1971) – w. & d. Woody Allen
Hapless New York product-tester, Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen), is dumped by his activist lover (Louise Lasser) and decides to travel to San Marco – an obscure Latin American dictatorship on the brink of revolution – in order to win her back. By accident he becomes “el Presidente”; and then everything starts to unravel during a State visit to his hometown.
Everything comes to a head in a New York courtroom, where the new President of San Marco is charged with fraud. So many laughs come from the nonsense of the trial; but my two favourite moments would have to be the sequence when Mellish cross-examines himself, and his stunning forensic success with an eye-witness despite being bound and gagged.
Allen is still learning his trade as director here – and has not yet discovered the vital importance of good editing – but this is a riotous satire with so many moving targets that repeat viewings are constantly rewarded.
(2): My Cousin Vinny (1992) – w. Dale Lamner, d. Jonathan Lynn
A pair of college students on a road-trip through Alabama, wrongly accused of murder, turn for help to the only attorney they know: the inexperienced, lazy loud-mouthed cousin, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci). Unaccustomed to Southern ways, and accompanied by his urban “squeeze” Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), Vinnny struggles to make headway against the combined might of the Alabama District Attorney and the District Court Judge.
This is another “fish-out-of-water” story, the charm of the scenario coming from the incongruity of combining the mannered Southern State trial process with Vinny’s urban shuffle. The biggest laughs emerge from the conflict between our hero and the lugubrious trial judge (played by Fred Dwayne), as the latter tries to get our hero to dress appropriately for court; and struggles to understand the New York accent.
Marisa Tomei won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Vinny’s long-suffering girlfriend; and although the denouement features another of those miraculous revelations unique to the movie courtroom, she does make the most drop-dead-gorgeous Expert Witness ever committed to celluloid (ahem, in my opinion).
And my number-one comedy trial scene?
(1) Liar, Liar (1997) – w. Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur, d. Tom Shadyac
Fletcher Reede, fast-talking attorney and habitual liar – fast-tracking for partnership – is a divorced father and incredibly successful; but his career, like his life, has been built on lying. He lets his job take priority, and is always breaking promises to his young son Max. On the boy’s birthday, Fletcher lets Max down once too often; and it his birthday wish that his father should only tell the truth for 24 hours.
Audiences either love or hate Jim Carrey’s work. Personally after seeing just how good an actor he can be (his character’s needy, disturbing psychological torture of Matthew Broderick in “The Cable Guy” ), I tend to give his comic-book histrionics the benefit of the doubt if the story-line justifies enough of it.
As our hero’s resistance to his son’s birthday wish crumbles in the courtroom – and his self-control collapses – he cannot resist challenging his own witness. For the convenience of the movie, and wholly unlike real life, the Judge does not stop him!
Thankfully for our hero, the wish only lasts 24 hours; and even though he has learned the life-lesson intended, the embarrassing effects are slow to wear off, even in the last dying breath of this disastrous trial. Can our hero recover enough to win his case by relying on the truth? The ending is typical dues ex machina nonsense – one of the largest white rabbits ever produced from a previously-hidden hat (the curse of all legal movies) – but there are so many entertaining moments, you just won’t care.
What would you put at the top of your own list of comedy trial scenes? What have I missed? Email and let us know.