I lost most of this last week to various impositions by litigious wankers, which is very boring, of course. On the other hand, it does mean that I've involuntarily acquired more knowledge of American legal process than any non-lawyer could ever need. One consequence thereof is that, at home of an evening, I watch more legal dramas than I used to. I incline toward the Commonwealth stuff because the wigs and gowns impose limits on the insanity of the proceedings: Happy the courthouse where the wackiest thing is the garb. Alas, in humdrum American reality, this week I was deposed by a shyster in blue jeans, which I was resentful of mainly because, if your client (the student-loan cockwomble Katz) is suing me for fifteen million bucks, I feel you could at least dress for the shakedown. At any rate, I've come to enjoy Aussie legal dramas in particular after such tedious days. (I'm fond of "Rake" with Richard Roxburgh in a rather tatty wig.)
This is our movie department, however, and so telly doesn't count. And at the end of the week I found myself oddly engrossed by a 1996 legal thriller Primal Fear. If memory serves, this particular titular formulation took off with Fatal Attraction, in whose wake came such memorable movies as Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal, Final Analysis, Basic Attraction, Fatal Proposal, Natal Depression, Fetal Position, Floral Arrangement, Viral Infection, Herbal Infusion, Gerbil Extraction, and in the fullness of time Richard Gere in Primal Fear. Presumably, these titles are handed out randomly at the studio Christmas party, because eventually you can't help noticing that they operate on the same principle as the tag line of the great Leslie Nielsen's fine commercials for Red Rock Cider: "It's not red and there's no rocks in it." Primal Fear is not primal and there's no fear in it.
Oddly enough, if you want meaningless two-word titles of similar bent, law is brimming with them: Injunctive Relief, Amended Complaint, Perfected Appeal, even Disinterested Malevolence. Why not Fatal Injunction or Final Objection? Anyway, Primal Fear may well have been a mere clerical error, because there is a primate in it — the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, who winds up getting murdered — although, given the way this courtroom drama develops, Cardinal Sin might have made a better moniker.
As for Richard Gere, he's a fascinating actor — off-screen. Think of his memorable appearance at the 1992 Oscars, when he led the audience in a mass think-in to transmit electronic beams of love and peace into the brain of Deng Xiaoping. Consider the way, after the collapse of the marriage whose nuptial bliss he took a full page in The Times of London to advertise, he met some new babe... at a party for the Dalai Lama. I like to think I'm a hep cat who knows the chick scene, but, frankly, it would never have occurred to me to go cruising for dolly birds at the Dalai Lama's pad.
This Gere is a guy you'd like to see on screen. But, in movies (save possibly for Chicago), Gere is always the same: a minimalist actor who plays detached, somewhat antiseptic professionals, like architects (Intersection) or lawyers (here). He favors Eighties-style Armani suits, except for the obligatory scene in every Gere picture where he gets ready for some swank function and gets a gal to tie his bow tie. In a Fred Astaire picture, climbing into the old soup-and-fish usually prefaces an electrifying dance number; in a Richard Gere picture, it usually prefaces a low-key wine-and-cheese fundraiser. But the actor now considers the I'm-puttin'-on- my-black-tux scene so critical to his persona that, in both Intersection and Primal Fear, it got moved to the front of the picture. "Now, the important stuff," says Gere, when he eventually meets his client, a young altar boy who allegedly stabbed the Archbishop 78 times. "What's your suit size?" Even in an age of celebrity lawyers, Gere is not quite convincing: you get the feeling that, if you asked him to file a suit, he'd say, "Why? Are the sleeves too long?"
Then there's the girl, who initially gives him the brush-off, allowing Richard to do his supercool c'mon-honey- you-know-you-want-me routine. In the Nineties Gere was so confident of his cool that, mocking the traditional insecurities of leading men, he insisted on wearing specs in every role and was the only Hollywood A-lister to dye his hair grey. At the age at which his actual hair started turning grey, he began dyeing it white. We're a year or two away from him affecting a walker, breathing tube and oxygen tank. This time, he sneaks up behind Laura Linney and rubs his tuxedo against her back. She doesn't want to know, dismissing their previous relationship as "a one-night stand that lasted six months". A lot of the dialogue comes out sounding like lines the studio had lying around the lot: "How," asks Miss Linney, "can your timing be so good in a courtroom and so bad in real life?"
I don't even get that. A guy who can make a one-night stand last six months should have no trouble making a two-day case last three years, as is the American litigation model. Inevitably, Gere and Miss Linney wind up on opposite sides of the court, she as the state prosecutor required by the Windy City machine to nail his client and thereby protect the usual rotten stinking dirty corrupt Chicago establishment. Once lovers, they're now locked in lawyerly combat hurling objections across the courtroom. This would be more interesting if Gere, whose sexual chemistry is mostly with himself, were not paired with Miss Linney, who, while not without her undoubted appeal, is also a somewhat cool thespian. Indeed, palpably cold when I've chanced to see her on stage from fifth row center. As I think back on it, that's why her casting in Love, Actually was so brilliant - because it was entirely at odds with the general cloying winsomeness of Hugh Grant, Colin Firth et al.
It's less successful up against Gere. But then almost every character in Gregory Hoblit's film is a familiar pre-programmed type: the former lover turned professional adversary, the corrupt politician up to his neck in murky development deals, etc. Yet along the way something strange happens: despite the deficiencies of story, characters and dialogue, you're gradually drawn in. Hoblit was a television director who'd worked mainly on ensemble shows like "NYPD Blue " and what he's done here is to assemble a cast of offhandedly in-depth players in relatively minor roles — not just Miss Linney, but also Frances McDormand as the evaluating psychiatrist and "Frasier"'s John Mahoney as the state's attorney. (Mr Mahoney was a lovely chap, a sometime reader of this site who sent me a nice note some years back about Broadway Babies Say Goodnight). Best of all is Edward Norton, in his motion picture debut and before the psycho act curdled to shtick, as the stammering boy from the backwoods who persuades the cynical attorney that he's telling the truth. In company this good, Gere's act shines. True, every plot twist can easily be spotted a good twenty minutes away, including the priestly predilections and the eleven-o'clock switcheroo, which by that stage seems entirely random. In that respect, however, it surely mirrors the justice system in which it's set.
~With the pile-up of legal bills from the college-loan cockwomble Katz and now "Blaze Media", Mark is taking to the road and joining the great Dennis Miller. Next month they'll be together on stage for the first time, starting in Reading, Pennsylvania and Syracuse, New York - and with VIP tickets you get not only premium seating but the chance to meet Dennis and Mark after the show.
Much of our content at SteynOnline is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time, and a live music club (check out our annual Twelfth Night edition of On the Town). More details here.