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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Verdict: Facts Not In Evidence

Submitted by on March 19, 2011 – 12:45 PM15 Comments

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.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    What is it with Mamet? When he's on he can conjure a rythm of dialogue that sounds like that song you never heard before but now that you are you realize you've been listening for it all your life, and then he abruptly switches over to trying to get a bunch of tone deaf puff adders to sing the Hallelujah Chorus while jumping on a trampoline.

    As a theater major he drove me nuts and he's continued to do so, but it sounds like a lot more went wrong here than just a left of center writer. I may have to rent it.

  • Matt Maul says:

    Objection sustained. BTW, "nurse ex machina" – great line!

  • Mollie says:

    It's been a while, but this sounds right to me. The first time I tried watching The Verdict, it came on TV while I was babysitting, and the parents came home about an hour in. So my initial impression was very positive. And then I finally managed to see the entire thing, and realized I was better off just making up the rest. It was nice to see Mamet's signature misogyny play itself out, though. Bitches always be trying to bring men down, am I right?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Yeah…if nothing else, you expect a scene in which Paul Newman hits Charlotte Rampling in the face to have some energy. Not positive energy, but SOME energy. Nope.

  • attica says:

    I have a weakness for Milo O'Shea and his eyebrows (take that, you eyebrow-come-lately Peter Gallagher), so I'm more lenient to the can o'ham he ushers in. That, and Law & Order hadn't yet been invented to school me in proper courtroom procedure (and I'm pretty sure I haven't seen The Verdict since it came out, or maybe just once since), so I didn't have that same, oh-no-you're-kidding-me-Mamet response. Just as well.

  • haardvark says:

    Small blessings…at least it didn't have Rebecca Pidgeon in it?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @haard: Nope, this is Crouse era, so no Pidgeon. She doesn't drive me as far up a tree as she does some people, though.

  • Bria says:

    Yep, this tracks well with what I remember, too. Starts off fine, then goes haywire. My ethics professor in law school showed it to us toward the end of the semester because, hilariously, one can spot violations of nearly every ethical rule in the book within the course of the film. Seriously, it's kind of worth another viewing with a copy of the model ethical rules in front of you (would make for the world's dorkiest drinking game for lawyers, now that I think about it…)

  • Mark Anthony Mifsud says:

    Darn it! You are right! All these years I’ve listened to people telling me what a great movie it is… but I was never convinced. The cast is good: Newman, Rampling, Mason and to a lesser extent, Warden do what they can with the script, but the plot holes are abysmally huge.

    At the end of it all, this supposedly profound film on the nature of justice is a simplistic, populist crowd-pleaser that actually appeals to the lowest common denominator… and yes, Frank’s summing up is totally irrelevant chatter with a “Let’s get even with someone, anyone” mindset.

  • I haven't read it in years, but this is based on a novel, and if I remember correctly, the movie is fairly faithful to the novel (except in what the judge does with the key piece of evidence, I think), so there's where the blame lies, I think. I also have never quite been able to get into this movie, despite being a big fan of Lumet, Mamet and Newman, not to mention James Mason.

  • Josh says:

    I think one of the reasons it has the rep it does, while being disappointing to people today has a lot to do with L&O and the various legal procedurals that have been omnipresent in today's tv. When this came out in 1982, you just didn't have nearly as much of it around and a lot of the shows that did show courtroom stuff was along the lines of Perry Mason which never let legal procedure get in the way of a dramatic case resolution. Courtroom accuracy is demanded now in a way it wasn't back then.

    Honestly, the thing that amazes me most in this movie is how old Newman looks a lot of the time. He's only 57, but he looks like a lawyer well into his 60's and on his last legs a lot of the time.

    The cast is good and they do ok with the clunky stuff they have to work with, but I agree: things that should sizzle kind of mosey along.

  • Another Elizabeth says:

    THAT'S why it's so depressing!

    I mean, it's depressing because Newman is really giving a great performance as a shambling wreck, but also because at some point it gets deeply confusing and sluggish, and the movie is trying to make Newman look inspired but Newman is still being a wreck, which I think is the correct choice, but it doesn't help the general flow of things.

    Also, yes, it's very odd that the dialogue should be so clunky at times, and yet not at all in the traditional Mamet fashion. I can usually hear bad Mamet from a mile away, but that ain't it.

  • Melanee says:

    I'd been hearing about this movie for most of my young and then adult life. I finally saw it about two months ago. I loved it. Maybe I'm a movie simpleton who likes sentimental pulp and incredibly blue eyes and a character who just can't seem to rise above his own sabotage, but I loved it. I'd like to think of myself as a discerning movie watcher bordering on connoiseur and I'd like to agree and see the flaws and imperfections you all did, but I can't. I was riveted from the beginning to the end. Maybe I liked it because I was hungry for a movie that didn't include a behind-the-scenes interview with E!, Entertainment Tonight (they do more promos for their stories than stories) or Showbiz Tonight and an assualt on my visual and auditory senses from now until it premieres. Maybe I was tired of people who play at acting instead of actually act.

    Does this mean I'm going to rush right out and see the new Tyler Perry film? HELLS NO!

  • Melissa says:

    I haven't seen this movie in 20 years but I still recall the wail from Crouse: "I wanted to be a NUUURRRSE!" Hubby and I looked at each other and cracked up laughing.

  • Sandman says:

    Aw, Julie Bovasso — Aunt Rita from Moonstruck! Also: Aw, Gondorff.

    Mamet I've never been that impressed with. This movie might be why.

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