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Movie review

June 11, 1997|By Jason Myers

Two courtroom movies take the screen

"A Few Good Men" was not the first movie to march into the courtroom with its self-righteousness on its sleeve. It did, however, coin the mantra which comes to mind every time I see some bleeding-heart melodrama like the new "Night Falls on Manhattan." Before Tom Cruise was pleading "Show me the money," he was demanding "I want the truth" - to which Jack Nicholson gave the more famous retort: "You can't handle the truth." Such is the grounds for a lot of moralizing in both these movies. Both are marked by an exemplary cast and top-notch director: "Men" - Rob Reiner, "Manhattan" - Sidney Lumet. But where "Men" had a sharp, witty script to propel it forward, "Manhattan" gets bogged down in too much trite theatrics and manipulation.

Over the years, Lumet has claimed Manhattan as his, offering versions of the borough in such masterpieces as "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico," and tripe like "A Stranger Among Us" and "Guilty as Sin." In Manhattan the portrait we get is of a city with such a huge underbelly that there's no telling what you might find when you lift it up. Young, earnest Assistant District Attorney Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) is trying to stick to the straight and narrow in a world where - get this - even cops and lawyers are corrupt. Sean's father, Liam (Ian Holm) is a fine member of the NYPD - one of the few upstanding officers apparently. He gets into trouble, however, when attempting to arrest a drug dealer - shot three times in the chest, while two other officers are killed by the same dealer. District Attorney Morgenstern (Ron Leibman, doing his best impression of Lumet regular Al Pacino) decides to give the case to Sean, approving of his fresh demeanor and vigorous dignity. The trial only comprises about a fifth of the movie - just long enough for politically correct attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss) to bring up the idea that police officers involved in the case were taking money from this drug dealer. Sean manages to win the case - and in a matter of minutes, he miraculously becomes District Attorney and is sleeping with one of Vigoda's assistants, Peggy Lindstrom (Lena Olin).

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Lumet's script and direction are cliched and movie-ish, and much too heavy-handed. We have seen all this business about evil extending its hand to greet politicians and police officers one time too many - and Lumet does not bother to inject any originality into the movie. He also cuts corners in story and character development. Sean's swift ascension is implausible, and many of his confrontations in search of The Truth come off as horribly staged. Still, Garcia manages to give an impassioned and appealingly ambiguous performance, and he has terrific chemistry with Holm - who gives a shattering turn. Even as the two actors mull over dead dialogue, they hook us with raw emotion. "Manhattan" could have used more of that and less sermonizing.

It also could have used a sense of humor, which "Trial & Error" has, though not in huge amounts. The movie also is about finding the truth - the truth about yourself and your role in society. There also are some decent laughs along the way. Jeff Daniels plays straight man lawyer Charles Tuttle to Michael Richards (aka Kramer) as off-the-wall actor Richard Rietti. After best man Richard throws too-wild a bachelor party for soon-to-be-wed Charles, he has to go into court and pretend to be him. Over the course of the trial, there are plenty of times for amusing antics as well as soul-searching. Trial is not quite as funny as this year's other courtroom comedy, "Liar, Liar," but it does share that movie's penchant for going off on sentimental tangents and forgetting about laughs. If "Trial" is not heartily hilarious, and even sort of pointless, it has its day in court, and Richards shows the stuff that indicates he can make the transition from small screen to silver screen. He just needs a script which can build on the tics he has so brilliantly mastered on Seinfeld.

Night Falls on Manhattan - Two Stars

Trial & Error - Two Stars

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