1. …And Justice For All (1979)
What makes a good lawyer? Is it the ability to dispassionately dissect the facts and circumstances of a case and arrive at the best solution for a client, based on a firm understanding of the law and respect for the fairness of the system? Or is it all just a bunch of pointing and yelling and going batshit? For Al Pacino in …And Justice For All, it’s definitely the latter. Playing bombastically earnest Baltimore defense attorney Arthur Kirkland, Pacino forgoes all that non-dramatic plea-bargain bullshit and goes straight to the hootin’ and hollerin’ in the famous “You’re out of order” scene, in which he goes after his own client in his opening statement. You don’t have to be a law student to know that calling the person you’ve sworn to defend “a slime” who “should go to fucking jail” probably violates basic legal ethics.
2. Wild Things (1998)
Courtroom scenes are generally so phony on film that it’s usually a good idea to make them as ludicrous as possible, and have every word of argument and testimony be inadmissible in a real-world court of law. In the funniest scene in the florid comic thriller Wild Things, director John McNaughton pushes the movie-movie artificiality of a sham trial to outrageous proportions. Much like Pretty Persuasion would later, the trial deals with students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell) attempting to bring down a teacher for sexual advances. But the event turns into a hilarious free-for-all, with Bill Murray in a phony neck brace, Richards hurling a glass of water across the room, and Robert Wagner emerging from the gallery to step up to the prosecutor’s table. How often do you hear the phrase “You skanky bitch!” screamed in a court of law?
3. Pretty Persuasion (2005)
Conniving Beverly Hills high-school student Evan Rachel Wood dreams of celebrity and will stop at nothing to get it, even if means steamrolling over the (mostly) innocent drama teacher (Ron Livingston) who chose another girl to play the lead in The Diary Of Anne Frank. So she plots to ensnare the teacher with her jailbait charms, and ropes two other students into a conspiracy to bring him down in a highly publicized sexual-harassment trial. As befits a satire on Hollywood—among a laundry list of other cultural issues—screenwriter Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega stage the trial to mirror the O.J. Simpson media circus, complete with an indulgent judge who bears more than a passing resemblance to Lance Ito. When Wood is on the stand, the teacher’s woefully inexperienced lawyer asks her to read aloud a provocative note she penned in detention. After her flat delivery, the lawyer asks her to read it again—this time in a “sexy” voice. What follows is the film’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” moment.
4. Duck Soup (1933)
Courtroom scenes don’t come much crazier than in the Marx brothers’ greatest film. Chico takes the stand in a court-martial after having served as a spy for the nation of Sylvania while he happened to be employed as the Secretary Of War for Freedonia; when informed he will be shot if found guilty, he objects on the grounds that he “couldn’t think of anything else to say.” (Freedonian leader Groucho sustains the objection because he can’t think of anything else to say, either.) When it looks hopeless for Chico because he can’t find anyone in the country willing to defend him on the charge of treason, Groucho switches from prosecution to defense after he learns there’s $18 in it for him. The trial ends inconclusively—a war breaks out and interrupts the proceedings—but the tenor of it is summed up in Groucho’s lament to Chico that he “tried to get a writ of habeas corpus, but I should have got-a writ of you instead.”
5. A Few Good Men (1992)
When it comes to political rhetoric, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin can’t help himself, no matter whether it pleases the court. Just as he found room in a fizzy broadcast show like Sports Night for characters to pontificate self-righteously about, say, the death of an obscure Negro League basketball player, he cannot get through a courtroom scene in A Few Good Men without slipping in a few not-so-lawyerly zingers. In defense of two soldiers facing court martial for murdering a weaker comrade under orders, freewheeling attorney Tom Cruise puts the military itself on trial, and he has a habit of preceding questions with long-winded (and often sarcastic) commentary. His showdown with Dick Cheney-esque heavy Jack Nicholson is the film’s most famous scene—“You can’t handle the truth!”—but an earlier cross-examination of a snarling lieutenant (Kiefer Sutherland) is an even more egregious example of his argumentative style. Objections are raised and sustained repeatedly as Cruise tears into the witness for soft-pedaling the facts (“You’re under oath now, and I think unpleasant as it may be, we’d all just as soon hear the truth!”) and baiting him by suggesting some orders are less stringent than others. (“After all, it’s peacetime!”) But since it’s Tom Cruise, the military court indulges what a military court would never indulge.
6. The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)
Tom Wolfe’s sprawling comic novel about rampant greed and the varying degrees of culture-blindness in mid-’80s New York revolves around the arrest of a bond trader accused of running over an inner-city youth. The incident prompts a lot of grandstanding in the press and in the black community—as well as an opposite overreaction in the business world and in Jewish legal circles—and culminates in a trial that exposes the venality of most of the story’s major players. Brian De Palma’s disastrous big-screen adaptation of The Bonfire Of The Vanities was plagued with behind-the-scenes problems and studio tampering (as documented in Julie Salamon’s excellent book The Devil’s Candy), perhaps most notably in its climactic trial scene. Already forced by his backers to replace Alan Arkin with Morgan Freeman for the judge role (in order to defuse some of the racial implications of the ending), De Palma was also asked to give Freeman a big closing speech to help alleviate the perceived frustrations of the movie audience. And so while Wolfe trusts Bonfire’s readers to recognize exaggeration as a tool of satire, Bonfire’s viewers are treated to the sight of Freeman waxing self-righteous in the courtroom, castigating all the story’s characters, then concluding with the line, “Decency is what your grandmother taught you… now go home and be decent people.” Um… is that sentence legally binding?
7. Arrested Development, “Fakin’ It” (2006)
Fox’s Arrested Development is as cartoony a live-action comedy as the network has ever seen, so when the show centered an episode around a mock trial against George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), it seemed like simply an excuse to pull a bunch of silly punchlines. But the stakes are raised when Michael (Jason Bateman) learns that anything said in a mock trial is admissible as evidence in a real trial. (Go figure.) So with that in mind, the judge, Judge Reinhold, is introduced via the band William Hung And His Hung Jury, Tobias (David Cross) shares disturbing secrets about his love life, and Gob (Will Arnett) does his puppet act from the witness stand. But the strangest, yet most useful, surprise comes when Michael calls Gob’s puppet to the stand. Inside is a tape that, when played, exposes the real prosecution’s plot, creating a mistrial. Why do there have to be puppets like Frank?
8. Adam’s Rib (1949)
“Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called inbreeding. From this comes idiot children… and other lawyers.” So goes one of the more famous lines from the screwball classic Adam’s Rib, but there’s another truth that the film gracefully elides: Married lawyers aren’t allowed to square off against each other as prosecutor and defense attorney in court, given the slight possibility of a conflict of interest. But humanity would be poorer without the epic battle-of-the-sexes that takes place between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib, which uses the trial of a woman (Judy Holliday) accused of murdering her cheating, abusive husband as a topical debate over equal rights. Just about every courtroom scene in the film becomes a contentious fight between Tracy and Hepburn for control over their marriage and how her assertive, independent nature shakes up his conception of what a wife’s role should be. Hepburn knows full well her client is guilty; she’s arguing for an entire gender.
9. What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
The rapidly building ridiculousness in Peter Bogdanovich’s charming screwball farce What’s Up, Doc? finally boils over in the climactic courthouse scene, which finds pretty much every character in the movie standing trial for crimes, including unauthorized use of public waters, grand larceny, assault with a deadly weapon, breaking and entering, and kidnapping. Set aside the fact that these people would surely be tried for their crimes separately—and that a decent lawyer would’ve prevented a trial in the first place—and there’s still an obvious conflict of interest: The judge is the father of star Barbra Streisand. No wonder the court bench improbably falls apart by the end of the scene.
10. Ghostbusters II (1989)
The charges against the Ghostbusters are legit enough—they caused a blackout in New York City by digging a hole in the middle of First Avenue. Their discovery of an underground river of slime costs them a potential 18 months in jail. They go to court for allegedly violating a judicial restraining order, willfully destructing public property, fraud, and malicious mischief. Even worse, the Ghostbusters draw a judge nicknamed “The Hammer,” who doesn’t believe in ghosts, and they’ve elected Rick Moranis as their lawyer, although he protests that he mostly does tax law and has no real experience in court. During an extended, ridiculous court scene, a meek Moranis argues that the Ghostbusters aren’t frauds “because one time I turned into a dog and they helped me.” Bill Murray feeds lines to Moranis under his breath while on the stand, calls the prosecutor “kitten,” and when cross-examined, sums up his half-hearted defense by asking, “Sometimes shit happens, and who you gonna call?” This pleases the audience but finds no sympathy with The Hammer, who keeps yelling “Shut up!” The judge works himself into such a tizzy that during the sentencing he adds that, on a personal note, he wishes he could “reach back to a sterner, purer justice and have you burned at the stake!” Of course, his red-faced spitting bothers the evidence jar of slime. It starts to bubble, then works itself into a full-on ghost invasion in the form of the Scoleri brothers, whom the judge long ago sentenced to the electric chair for murder. The Scoleri ghosts hurl furniture around the courtroom while the audience runs out screaming, and The Hammer, frightened for his life, forgets his principles, rescinds the restraining order, and dismisses the case.
11. Legally Blonde (2001)
It’s always awkward when people out themselves on the witness stand, but never more so than when it ruins the prosecution’s case. In Legally Blonde, after a key male witness makes a snarky comment outside the courtroom about Reese Witherspoon’s Prada shoes being last season, Witherspoon deduces that only a gay man would possibly say something like that. Woods informs defender (and dreamboat) Luke Wilson, who, in the courtroom, employs Wacky Interrogation Method #24, i.e. forcing the witness to confess something by hiding an incriminating question in a batch of rapid-fire routine questions. To wit: “Did you take Mrs. Windham on a date?” “Yes.” “Where?” “A restaurant in Concord, where no one could recognize us.” “How long have you been sleeping with Mrs. Windham?” “Three months.” “And your boyfriend’s name is?” “Chuck.” Cue the obligatory gallery gasp. The prosecution’s argument that the defendant was having an affair with the pool-boy has been effectively dismantled, though first, the flustered witness corrects himself: “Pardon me, pardon me. I thought you said friend. Chuck is just a friend.” Naturally, Chuck stands up in a huff and hurls “You bitch!” at the stand. Oh, the gays: Such disrespect for the court.
12. Serial Mom (1994)
John Waters’ satire Serial Mom works just fine when it functions as a send-up of proper middle-class manners: Kathleen Turner’s prim and proper mother is driven to murderous rage by her neighbors’ minor transgressions, like failing to rewind rented videotapes. But when she’s finally arrested and put on trial, the satire kicks into high gear, as our societal obsession with criminals as celebrities is lampooned in grand fashion. Acting as her own attorney, the newly famous Turner impugns police testimony by branding the cop on the stand as a porn freak, shuts down a key piece of evidence when Suzanne Somers arrives in court to prepare for a TV movie in which she’ll portray “Serial Mom,” turns the jury against one hostile witness by revealing that she doesn’t recycle, and converts a snitch to her side by giving him a gratuitous bit of MILF upskirt. The only thing that interferes with her brilliant self-defense is when she’s homicidally distracted by one juror’s insistence on wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
13. Seems Like Old Times (1980)
Goldie Hawn plays a defense attorney with a soft spot for lost causes. Charles Grodin is her husband, a district attorney on track to become attorney general. Chevy Chase is Hawn’s ex-husband, a writer who’s kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to rob a bank. When Chase comes to Hawn for help—on the night of a big dinner party for the governor—farce ensues, but all is ultimately resolved when Chase comes before the court accompanied by the kidnappers, Hawn’s thick-accented Hispanic housekeeper, and Hawn’s pack of stray dogs. “He’s dribbling on my briefs,” a confused Judge Harold Gould says of one of the pooches, before finally giving in and letting Chase go. Written by Neil Simon and directed by TV vet Jay Sandrich, Seems Like Old Times is an homage to ’30s screwball romances, so it ends the way all those movies about reluctant divorcées and long-missing husbands did: with chaos in the courtroom, and all set right by an exasperated jurist.
14. Webster, “Ticket To Ride” (1989)
Webster’s run-in with the law came near the end of the sitcom’s run, so it’s easy to understand why the writers felt the need to get creative with the legal system in order to squeeze another plotline out of the show’s already-odd premise. While riding his new all-terrain bike, the obviously juvie-aged Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) is plucked from the streets and thrown into grown-up court on the heinous, very adult offense of being in an intersection while the lights changed. Using the conveniently court-provided bicycle during his trial, Webster, atop his saddle, manages to beat the trumped-up charges by heroically recounting what happened on that fateful day. Much to the chagrin of the hard-nosed judge and bike-hating Officer Stewart, Webster successfully makes his case and lives to ride another day—or at least for another six episodes.
15. Trial And Error (1997)
Imagine the brainstorming in the mid-’90s that must have gone on as movie execs tried to find the right vehicle for Michael Richards’ first starring film role: Kramer… as a doctor! Hmm, no. Kramer as a Wall Street stockbroker! Um, uh… Kramer as a lawyer! Hot damn, that’s it! But, thankfully for Trial And Error (directed by Jonathan Lynn, who already did the law-comedy thing with the much-better My Cousin Vinny), there’s always something entertaining in watching Richards fall and stumble and fall again and somehow destroy property during the most mundane of tasks, and a courtroom is as good a setting for that as any. With no shortage of slapstick, the movie actually derives most of its humor from the interplay between Richards (who plays an actor pretending to be a lawyer) and Jeff Daniels (a real lawyer pretending to be Richards’ associate), as Daniels, banned from the trial, tries surreptitiously to guide Richards through it. At one point, Daniels, outside listening to the proceedings through a walkie-talkie, indicates to Richards what legal motions to make by blowing his car horn; a nearby accident causes an eruption of angry car-honking by other motorists, prompting Richards to make a slew of nonsensical, ridiculous objections. Successful courtroom humor often comes from people being clueless or losing their temper, and the inoffensively silly Trial And Error includes a lot of both.
16. My Cousin Vinny (1992)
And speaking of that previous, superior Jonathan Lynn courtroom comedy, people watching it could be forgiven for getting some odd ideas about how the law works. Early on, stern small-town Alabama judge Fred Gwynne reads big-city ambulance-chaser Joe Pesci the riot act about any possible courtroom shenanigans: “You being from New York and all might have the impression that law is practiced with a certain degree of informality around here. It isn’t… When it comes to procedure, I am not a patient man.” Sure enough, once proceedings start in the bogus murder trial against fearful, framed teens Mitchell Whitfield and Ralph Macchio, Gwynne impatiently harasses Pesci from the bench, dissing his profane vocabulary and weak grasp of the law, but also his clothes, hair, and accent. Things get progressively worse, as a jury is selected on the basis of who calls for Whitfield and Macchio’s execution, Whitfield’s lawyer turns out to have a profound, uncontrollable stutter when he’s under pressure, and an exhausted Pesci shows up for court in a bright-red usher’s uniform, then promptly nods off. Called upon to follow the prosecutor’s opening statement with his own, he gets up and snaps “Everything that guy just said is bullshit.” And yet Gwynne sits by patiently as Pesci awkwardly Columbos his way through his defense case, getting the kids acquitted largely by accusing one witness of, gasp, cooking instant grits, and then by forcing his own cranky fiancée onto the stand as an expert witness, and working out his relationship problems with her via a cross-examination that plays out much like foreplay.
17. Liar Liar (1997)
And yet all the court wackiness in My Cousin Vinny seems pretty buttoned-down compared to any five minutes of Liar Liar, in which spastic lawyer Jim Carrey spends an entire day unable to lie because of his son’s birthday wish. Which leads to all kinds of upheavals in his life, since he normally lies nonstop and to everyone in sight. But it makes things particularly bad when he has to represent wholly undeserving adulterer Jennifer Tilly in a divorce case where a pre-nup says she’s owed nothing, but she wants half her husband’s vast estate. Made frantic by his inability to lie, Carrey sings, mugs, flaps, shrieks, and eventually beats the shit out of himself in an attempt to get a continuance, but all to no avail; the case continues, making even greater acts of flailing wackiness necessary. For instance, when he tries to talk around an issue, and then is magically forced to object loudly to his own statements. Or when he gets into a screaming fight with opposing counsel, and then with his own client. Mostly, he stands around delivering frenetic rubber-body physical comedy. Ultimately, the judge delivers a line that should wind up in every wacky, unlikely cinematic court case: “It is out of sheer morbid curiosity I am allowing this freakshow to continue.”
18. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
One of the Coen brothers’ least-loved comedies, Intolerable Cruelty still has a lot to recommend it, largely in the courtroom scene featuring George Clooney as a smooth-talking divorce attorney with a contempt for marriage, a yen for a challenge, and a pocketful of typically cinematic cross-examination tricks up his sleeve: Facing down gold-digger Catherine Zeta-Jones after her husband Edward Herrmann cheats on her and she goes after his wealth, he puts her on the stand and recites accusatory poetry at her. Then he summons up “Heinz, the Baron Krauss Von Espy,” a flamboyant, French concierge who totes his Pomeranian onto the stand and chats with her during his own testimony, bringing the proceedings grinding to a halt as he demands to know whether anyone in the courtroom has any bones for her. Zeta-Jones’ attorney vociferously objects to every part of Clooney’s performance and his witness, but no-nonsense judge Isabell O’Connor dryly answers his every protest with “I’m going to allow it,” repeating the line so many times that finally Clooney explodes at his opponent, “Shut up, Freddy, she’s allowing it!” When the Baron (Jonathan Hadary) gleefully reveals that Zeta-Jones was out to dupe and divorce Herrmann from the beginning, and that he himself made the whole thing possible, Herrmann snaps, leaps across the room, and assaults the witness, while incongruously screaming about his own secret sexual fetish. Zeta-Jones’ lawyer continues to protest: “Objection, your honor! Strangling the witness!” O’Connor continues to react with aplomb: “I’m going to allow it.”