I’m a total sucker for legal dramas. When done well, it’s a great format to build suspense and make important social statements. When done poorly, courtroom dramas can range from painful, to hilarious, to downright irresponsible with facts and details…
Last week, we brought you some of the most absurd attempts of replicating judicial procedure in the most unlikely courtroom dramas. Ranging from “Chicago” to “Miracle on 34th Street,” it was clear that film writers are comfortable fudging the facts and realities when it comes to telling a compelling story. Not surprisingly, the same is true for legal comedies… to an even more outlandish extent. But since comedies typically aren’t bound by realism or attention to detail, the freedoms taken in the films described below are perhaps more forgivable than those taken in courtroom dramas. Take a look at our list, and let us know what we missed in the comments.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) abandons her major in fashion and merchandising and applies to Harvard Law School to follow her ex boyfriend. With the help of an application video, the admissions committee accepts Woods under the guise of “diversity,” but really because she’s hot. Woods excels at Harvard partially because she is smarter than anyone expects, and also because she’s hot. Elle eventually takes an internship with a professor and works on a high-profile case with her ex and his new girlfriend. Elle shines in the courtroom by building on what she knows best: fashion and people. The plaintiffs allege that Elle’s client, a fitness instructor, murdered her husband after having an affair with the house cabana boy. But when he compliments Elle’s shoe style, she deduces that he is a homosexual (there are other signs), and that he could not have had an affair with the defendant. Elle uses the same technique later to discredit the plaintiff’s claim that she was taking a shower at the time of the murder, which Elle points out would have ruined her perm. Overall, the film makes you wonder why fashion isn’t taught in law school.
New Yorkers Billy Gambini and Stan Rothenstein are driving through the south when they stop at a convenience store and forget to pay for a can of tuna. Shortly after they leave, two men matching their description rob the store and murder the clerk. When they are stopped by state troopers down the highway, Billy and Stan admit to stealing the tuna, not knowing they are admitting to murder. Billy is forced to rely on his cousin Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), a Brooklyn personal injury lawyer with no trial experience who passed the bar exam on his seventh attempt in seven years, for representation. As far as accuracy goes, this film’s saving grace is the fact that Vinny has no idea what he is doing, which explains his disrespect for the judge and trial procedure. The final courtroom scene is less forgivable, as Vinnie calls his girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito (Marissa Tomei), a lifelong automobile expert, to the stand to discredit the FBI’s claim that Billy and Stan’s car was the getaway vehicle. She testifies that although the two vehicles were different, the tire marks at the scene show that it could not have been Billy’s Buick Skylark due to “positraction!”
British barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) falls into a life of crime somewhat by accident. Until he meets Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), he lives a boring life with a semi-successful legal career. Trying to double cross her partner in crime George Thomason, Wanda tries to seduce his lawyer (Leach). Though they never have sex, Leach is clearly enamored and lets his guard down enough for Gershwitz to confuse his line of questioning in court and even calls her “darling.” This sets off a massive courtroom brawl as George attacks Archie, whose wife later decides to divorce. With no marriage or career to hold him down, Archie resolves to flee to South America with Wanda where they can live from stolen jewel money.
It’s amazing that this 2003 legal comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen involved the work of 6 Oscar winners including the Coens, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones, Geoffrey Rush, and Billy Bob Thornton. Zeta-Jones’ character, Marylin Rexroth, is a kind of modern Hello Dolly, focused only on finding rich men to marry and later divorce for their fortune. She is successful with Rex Rexroth until he hires the best divorce attorney in Los Angeles, Miles Massey (George Clooney), who gets his client off without having to pay a dime, despite video proof that he had repeated affairs. Massey enjoys the win but is clearly taken with Ms. Rexroth and maintains a crush for years to come. This changes when a newly divorced and apparently filthy rich Rexroth (different divorce) approaches Massey and returns the affection. The two agree to marry, protected by a Massy prenuptial agreement, the best, most indestructible prenup around. In a fit of passion, Massey lets Rexroth rip up the prenup, believing that she is more wealthy than him. Massey later learns that Rexroth’s second marriage was a sham and that she is worth nothing, meaning that she can now take half of Massey’s fortune.
A career-focused lawyer is physically unable to tell lies due to a wish his son made at his birthday party. The premise of this 1997 Jim Carrey comedy alone designates it as completely unbelievable. It gets more absurd as Carrey slowly realizes that he can’t lie through unfortunate circumstances like telling his boss/lover that he’s “had better” sex. But the climactic courtroom scene makes a farce of legal procedure writ large. In order to win a divorce case, Carrey has counseled his main witness to commit perjury. But unable to tell lies, Carrey is also unable to get the desired response from the witness, and flails around the courtroom, beating himself out in an attempt to lie. Fortunately, Carrey learns at the last minute that his client had lied about her age, and signed the prenup while a minor, rendering it invalid. Once his client wins, taking the children from their caring father, Carrey has another crisis of confidence and screams at the judge to reverse the decision. This hastens the only believable part of the film, when the judge holds Carrey in contempt of court and throws him in jail.
The most unbelievable thing about this 90s Pauly Shore flick is that it is based on Twelve Angry Men, one of the best legal films around. Jury Duty comes at the best time for Tommy Collins (Shore), a semi-employed stripper who lives in his parents mobile home. When they take the RV on a month-long trip, Collins and his Chihuahua Peanut need a new place to stay. Fortunately, it’s a big case that will take weeks, and the court puts the jurors up in lavish hotel rooms. To keep the room, Shore prolongs discussion on what the other 11 jurors believe to be a slam dunk conviction. Right when others are the most frustrated, Collins makes a major discovery which points to the defendant’s innocence. Justice is served, but once again, Collins is out on the street.
Who says Michael Richards had no career after playing Kramer in Seinfeld? Not someone who saw this 1997 legal comedy, in which Richards impersonates a defense attorney to cover for his friend (Jeff Daniels) in a class action fraud suit because Daniels got too drunk at his bachelor party the night before the trial began. The problem, of course, is that Richards, an actor, knows nothing about law. This leads to scenes in which Richards fumbles around the courtroom, making absurd objections and outwardly asking witnesses to perjure themselves to help his case. Chiding Richards at one point, Daniels says “I don’t pose, I don’t preen…I don’t make a mockery of the American legal system,” to which Richards replies “You’ve got your style, I’ve got mine.”
In this 1971 comedy, Woody Allen does what any self-respecting man would do to impress a woman: move to South America and become a revolutionary. After the leader of the revolution goes crazy, Allen’s character reunites with his girlfriend (who is impressed!) and tries to come back to the United States, only to be arrested and charged with a number of outlandish crimes, including treason. This inspires a classic courtroom scene in which Allen defends himself, running in and out of the witness box as he acts as both attorney and witness while the judge offers an occasional weak warning like “that’s enough.” Finally, the judge orders the court marshal to bind and gag Allen, which doesn’t stop his unique legal style. In the next scene, Allen cross examines a witness with a sock in his mouth and bound to a chair. Though we can’t hear a word he says, he gets the witness to admit “It’s true! I lied!”
Clearly, this isn’t entirely a legal comedy. But it has perhaps the most absurd courtroom scene in any movie, comedy or drama, so I could not exclude it from this list. The prosecution’s case was pretty simple: the Ghostbusters covered New York City in slime, caused a citywide blackout, and violated repeated restraining orders to stop fighting ghosts. Regardless, the team settles for representation from their friend, a tax lawyer played by Rick Moranis, who concludes his opening argument with a plea to let them off the hook because “one time I turned into a dog and they helped me.” Later on, Bill Murray feeds lines to his lawyer, calls the prosecutor “kitten,” and proclaims “sometimes shit happens, someone has to deal with it, and who you gonna call?” The most important part of this scene is that a jar of slime really hates the judge (who does not believe in ghosts). When he finds the Ghostbusters guilty and goes on a rant about their destruction and absurd belief in ghosts, the slime bubbles up and releases the ghosts of two men the judge put to death years before. To fix the problem, the judge dismisses the case and lets the trio bust some ghosts. Just…watch it: