The Verdict: Facts Not In Evidence
Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that I could barely choose among the myriad vaguely pejorative courtroom-drama puns for the subhed, and focus on what makes The Verdict unique. It's not the acting, which is quite good under the circumstances; it's not Frankie's return from the brink of alcoholic oblivion, certainly, as Paul Newman has filled that role, or a variation on it, several times (The Sting's Henry Gondorff, for one).
But I can't think of another movie that built a well-crafted, well-pitched first hour, then gorged itself on Swiss cheese and fifth-grade book reports and drove itself into the side of a mountain, and if you think that imagery is a garbage omelet, cue up The Verdict right around when the trial starts, 'cause you ain't seen nothin'. Imagine the entire downward credibility spiral of a David E. Kelley legal drama, crammed into 129 minutes of screentime. …Yeah.
The premise is nothing special — a broken-down ambulance-chaser, thrown a pity referral by a colleague, decides to make a genuine go of a medical-malpractice trial instead of accepting a settlement — but it has some promise. The rhythm of Frankie's days, with the pinball and the raw egg in a glass of beer, is unvarnished, almost documentary; the defendant in the case is not just the doctors who allegedly used the wrong anesthetic, but an entire diocese, as the events went down in a Catholic hospital, so that could add a frisson; David Mamet writes defense attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason) and his cadre of Monty-Burnsian junior partners with dimension and flair, particularly the scene in which Concannon preps Dr. Towler (Wesley Addy) for cross. The "the underdog/green lawyer outswims the sharks" plot is as old as Hammurabi, but it's lasted for a reason, and it's possible to innovate within it, and even merely presenting all the expected beats competently can give the audience some satisfaction.
That doesn't happen here. Fairly early on, Frankie gives a speech in the bishop's office about how he can't accept the settlement check. It's not that Frankie doesn't feel that way, but the dialogue is a square wheel even by Mamet standards. More to the point, it's that plaintiff's attorney would not have a come-to-Jesus with himself in the presence of the defendant. (Nor would the bishop wear full Mass drag for that meeting, probably, or in every other scene, never mind taking the meeting without counsel present in the first place, but what does this Baptist know.)
About 20 minutes after that, the story loses its way for good. The romance with Laura (Charlotte Rampling, coasting as usual and in desperate need of a decent moisturizer) feels a bit off from the jump, as Frankie picks her up in a bar and their very next date finds them fighting like a married couple, but at least it wasn't predictable. Then we find out that she's actually in Concannon's employ, paid to spy on Frankie as part of a post-divorce comeback in her own legal career. That could make sense, somehow, if the implication that Concannon is actually her father got followed up. It isn't. Nor is Frankie's mentor relationship with Morrissey (Jack Warden, going down with the ship) explained. The script makes the risibly coiffed Judge Hoyle (Milo O'Shea) a cartoonish, corrupt asshole, in a ham-handed attempt to get the viewer into the tank for Frankie, and we waste a good 15 minutes in scenes with him, and with Maureen Rooney (a squandered Julie Bovasso), who's very obviously the key to the entire case. Until she…isn't!
Argh. And yet, all of that could be overlooked. The fundamental problem here, the thing that can't be gotten past, is the movie's absolute ignorance of legal procedure, and the amateurish structuring and pace of the courtroom scenes that proceeds from that. Frankie as written is completely incompetent: doesn't do basic, reading-page-one-of-the-depo research, doesn't know how to ask for a continuance (and in fact calls it an "extension"), doesn't object to badgering, lets his own witnesses whip damning evidence out of their pocketbooks during cross-examination instead of soliciting it on direct…it's insane. Newman tries heroically with a short, hazy closing argument about justice and mercy, but he doesn't mention any of the pertinent details of the case, and we could conceivably sympathize with and root for a clod like Frankie, but the movie doesn't think he's a clod. The movie thinks he's brilliant. He's such a legal eagle that nobody saw a need to mic the courtroom extras for the reading of the verdict (or at any other time) to give us an emotional payoff, even a cheap one, when the jury inexplicably decides for the plaintiff. Nobody saw a need to tell us the amount of the damage award, after jump-starting the plot with a specific settlement number and drawing our attention to it at length. No scene with Frankie and his clients afterwards. No follow-up with nurse ex machina Kaitlin Price (Lindsay Crouse, the evident inspiration for David Boreanaz's "for it is I, Potato Lad" accent in Angel). It's one thing to elide scenes we've all seen a million times, but this isn't that. This is straight-up deleting vital third-act information, which, having sat through over an hour of dog's breakfast, we are owed.
Skyrockets and I surveyed the wreckage for a good half an hour, trying to figure out what the hell happened, because again, The Verdict isn't terrible the whole way through. It's pretty good, and then it's terrible, which is more frustrating somehow, and also just very weird — I can't think of another movie that goes off the cliff in that fashion. The writing is apparently to blame, but it isn't bad in the way that Mamet, when he's bad, is usually bad; generally, when Mamet's writing is not working (and for some people it never does, but I enjoy him), it is immediately not working, and in a too-cerebral way that disappears up its own ass, not in the "I've never watched Perry Mason before" way we saw here. So then maybe it's the directing…except I don't think so. Sidney Lumet is not my favorite, but again, the issues I would usually have with Lumet (self-seriousness, sentimentality) aren't the issues I have with this. In the absence of a better explanation, I have to assume that the name talent went to Cabo after the first hour of story and let the scrubeenies take over; even the shot-making changes. The sound stops having a design. It's master shot after static master shot. Did someone lose a bet? Did the source novel have these problems? What went wrong?
Ordinarily I'd advise you not to watch it, but I do wonder if anyone else would see what we saw, that it's a solid film for an hour before muddling itself over the edge. Damnedest thing.
Tags: bad accents bad screenplay no biscuit Charlotte Rampling David Boreanaz David Mamet henh? Jack Warden James Mason Julie Bovasso Lindsay Crouse Milo O'Shea movies Paul Newman Sidney Lumet The Verdict Wesley Addy