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This Is So Stupid

There Are Three Essential Lawyer Movies

George Clooney, as Michael Clayton, talks into a cell phone while walking down a city street at night.
Image via Youtube

A thing that happens every once in a while is that somebody you know, who had not previously watched Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy's 2007 legal thriller starring George Clooney as a burnt-out fixer tasked with mopping up a colleague's crisis of conscience, watches Michael Clayton. And then for a little while it's all they want to talk about, and you get to share all of your favorite Arthur lines with each other, and each of you once or twice sighs and goes, "God, that movie is so good!" It's fun. (This also happens whenever a friend who has already watched Michael Clayton 23 times watches Michael Clayton a 24th time.)

Part of this ritual, though, is when you and the recent Michael Clayton viewer share the bleak realization that however intensely Michael Clayton has made you want to watch another movie like Michael Clayton, you basically can't. There are movies that maybe get you part of the way there—The Insider, or The Conversation, or All the President's Men, or, ugh, like, Syriana if you're really desperate and it's free—but nothing that will scratch the particular itch Michael Clayton leaves you with. In fact, any of those will only deepen the itch.

This is mostly due to Michael Clayton being an extremely good and original movie. But it's also because Michael Clayton represents one of the three true poles of the Lawyer Movie map. (It has three poles.) You can head in a Michael Clayton-ward direction, but once you have reached Michael Clayton, you can go no farther in that direction. Your next step by definition will be toward one of the other two poles, which are My Cousin Vinny and The Devil's Advocate.

When you want to watch another movie like My Cousin Vinny, you simply cannot. There are plenty of other goofy, artistically unambitious fish-out-of-water comedies; the '90s overflowed with them. There are silly courtroom comedies. There are movies where Italian-American New Yorkers express all emotions via bickering and use the word fuckin' as punctuation and punch a guy. There are movies with incandescently great performances by Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci. The itch for My Cousin Vinny is not just the itch for these! It is the itch for these plus that movie's endearing attention to the details of actual courtroom procedure and witness examination, and its ability to wring actual laughs out of these, which can be found in no other movie that has literally anything else in common with My Cousin Vinny. Another lawyer movie might have culture-clash japes or courtroom antics or Bruce McGill—so far as I can tell, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, & Blonde has all three—but it will not satisfy your craving for watching another movie like My Cousin Vinny. There simply are none.

Likewise The Devil's Advocate! There are lots of movies in which Keanu Reeves is handsome and in peril! There are several movies in which a hot-shit attorney defends an accused murderer while having ethical doubts. There are lots and lots of movies where essentially normal or normal-adjacent people get roped into Satan/Antichrist–type deals that seemingly everyone else is in on. The world sadly contains at least one extraneous handful of unworthy movies that climax with Al Pacino going Pacino Mode on everybody's ass. There is even at least one other fun, horny lawyer movie (Body Heat) in which a tall, good-looking Southern attorney gets led to his own moral ruin by a seductive villain who is not who they seem to be and everyone looks sweaty all the time. But when you finish watching The Devil's Advocate, Body Heat will not slake your (deranged, kind of embarrassing, but real) thirst for another movie like The Devil's Advocate, for the simple reason that it does not combine those elements with Satan yelling about how he is a fan of man. It does not feature any scenes in which a literal demon flashes a set of chompers so fucked-up and ugly that a central character promptly slashes her own throat and dies.

All other lawyer movies fall somewhere between these poles. A Civil Action, for example, depicts courtroom procedural stuff more or less accurately, like My Cousin Vinny, and features the awakening of a schmuck lawyer's conscience, like both The Devil's Advocate and Michael Clayton. But it lacks japes, Tom Wilkinson raving about his journey through the anus of the world, and Satan.

The Firm has the secretly evil law firm (Advocate), and the wife who just wants to go back to the way things were (also Advocate). It even revolves around a handsome young lawyer who is too horny for his own good (damn, this movie really is a lot like The Devil's Advocate). But at no point in it does the actual devil pull an ain't-I-a-stinker face, poke his finger into a cathedral's holy water font, and make it boil. This sort of thing is crucial to the Devil's Advocate experience.

The Verdict swings pretty close to Michael Clayton's territory by swapping in Paul Newman's lonely drunk from Boston for George Clooney's lonely gambler from New York. The Verdict even has, and humanizes, a morally degraded, corporate ladder–climbing woman antagonist, like Michael Clayton. But at no point does Charlotte Rampling air out her sweaty pits in a bathroom stall; nor does she ever order someone's assassination the same way a nervous suburbanite might try to buy weed on the street corner. The Verdict never conjures as hilarious, heartbreaking, and indelible an image as the manic Arthur shuffling down a city street carrying a cartoonishly gigantic bouquet of fresh baguettes in a paper grocery bag. You simply cannot get this kind of stuff from any other source.

Liar Liar combines japes in and out of the courtroom (Vinny), a divorced lawyer who splits custody of a young son who regards him as untrustworthy (Michael Clayton), and the supernatural (Devil's Advocate), but it will leave Vinny enjoyers missing that movie's goofy but sincere reverence for courtroom wrangling, Michael Clayton fans starved for that movie's close attention and thoughtfulness, and Devil's Advocate enthusiasts yearning for a scene in which Satan demonstrates his vast powers of Hell by persuading some lady to go down on him in a tapas restaurant.

Probably the exact center of this, uh, triangular area—visualize it!—is A Few Good Men, which will scratch none of the itches left by any of the three polestar movies to satisfaction, but will leave all of them equally unrelieved. It has the smug, handsome slickster's crisis of conscience, like The Devil's Advocate. Like Michael Clayton's, A Few Good Men's protagonist is dealing with complicated and painful Familial Stuff that complicates his work. Like My Cousin Vinny, it centers its story on a raw and initially unserious lawyer with a latent gift for flamboyant cross-examination, defending two young men accused of murder, who makes The Leap under pressure and wins the case. And like The Devil's Advocate, it climaxes with the diabolical arch-villain—played by an eyebrow-waggling screen icon who received four Best Actor Academy Award nominations in the 1970s—making a big showstopping speech about how actually, everybody needs him and should appreciate him more.

Unfortunately, A Few Good Men's utter disregard for how courtroom trials work (and total lack of Italians going Eyyyyy and calling their mothers "Ma") will leave Vinny lovers unsatisfied. Michael Clayton enjoyers will find their desire for that movie's real moral anguish and authentically grown-up characters unsatisfied. And those hoping to replicate the joys of The Devil's Advocate will watch A Few Good Men's end credits feeling hollow inside, because they never got to see Satan tell a fellow subway rider that if he hurries home he can interrupt his wife's adulterous venture into butt stuff.

I believe that I have made my point. The prosecution rests! No further questions!!!!!

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