Artisan // 1995 // 184 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 22nd, 2003
Lawyers in love...and serious legal entanglements.
Let's see if you can follow this one. A famous TV reporter kills a famous writer in self-defense because she said he tried to rape her. She gets her famous lawyer ex-boy toy to defend her. He brings on his decidedly non-renowned female assistant to help with the case. Now our little Ms. Nobody has her own TV movie issues. She has a conniving, cruel husband who is robbing her blind and poisoning the mind of their adolescent daughter against her, just in time for a messy divorce and custody hearing. After the wobbly sexual assault case draws to its rote revelation filled conclusion, the celebrated barrister and his co-counsel concubine head to the City of Lights for a little chumminess along the Champs Elysees. When they return home, they learn that the slime-ball spouse is dead and that the illustrious attorney is the prime suspect. Seems an eyewitness places the prominent notary near the dead drip at the time of his faux suicide. So it's another long, drawn out courtroom clash to determine if our accused acclaimed advocate is guilty of giving his girlfriend guaranteed guardianship of her kid. Not that she cares, really. She's too busy having adolescent flashbacks to some strange domestic scene of death and doom from her childhood. It will take another one of those implausible last minute ancillary character confessions (complete with black and white memory replay) to determine the Degree of Guilt between the prosecution, the defense, and the pitiful, pandering filmmakers who created this crud.
When you see a screen credit that reads "based on the novels Degree of Guilt and Eyes of a Child by Richard North Patterson," you automatically start wondering to yourself how a movie, even at three hours, can possibly digest two full fiction works filled with character, plot, and twists into one partly plausible mini-series. And the answer is simple: the filmmakers get a shoehorn, some axle grease, and a couple of dozen Teamsters and wedge every last motherlovin' plot element into the bad boy. Never before in the history of the book (or in this case, volumes) for television does a movie convolute the conventional structures of narrative storytelling to distend its premise to as close to the breaking point as possible. Indeed, Degree of Guilt is like the clip show from a crap one-hour legal drama about a couple of lawyers who are exceptionally good at de-briefing each other. Christopher Paget and Teresa Peralta are not characters so much as conduits for the multiple over-plotted sub-points to flow through. If regular humans lived lives this complicated and scandalous, Court TV would be the number one channel in the ratings, week in and week out. It's just hard to envision these characters living the plentiful backstory that's bantered around.
A glut of personal history is just the beginning of the problems with Degree of Guilt's massive pressing together of prose. Making this movie a tale of two felonies leaves it decidedly schizophrenic. At about the 90-minute mark, the narrative slams on its airheadbrakes and sets a new course for confusion by forgetting the female reporter's ersatz rape and instead, concentrating on the dirtball daddy's demise. That is, after our courtroom couple have a scenery specific lover's tryst in Paris. It's almost like they're taking a holiday from the hassle of having to get back to the second half of the film.
The main reason Degree of Guilt drags on like a Congressional filibuster on tobacco subsidies is that we never ever care, not even once, if justice is served in either of the cases highlighted here. The famous TV reporter seems like a cold, calculating witch and as the course of the elongated narrative blathers on, we learn that she is worse than ever imaginable. And we are then supposed to root for her to beat the rap? The ex-husband, on the other hand, is one of those cardboard cutout con artist crooks whose rather simple death is more decent than he deserves. With his smug self-righteousness and sleazy smear campaign tactics, the systematic peeling of his flesh, one layer at a time, from his squalid bones wouldn't be punishment enough. And so he needs to have his murderer brought before the bar and punished? If anything, the killer should be awarded a gift certificate to Bed, Bath and Beyond. This "who cares who pays" attitude renders both in-court legal battles meaningless and slows the already snail's pacing of the overall presentation. Additionally, the fact that we know who killed the slimy writer in the first half of the movie and we can more or less guess who did it in the second means that the writing, acting, and directing better be top notch or the audience is in for a long and whiny load of BS. But instead, the creators do the weird thing of messing with their pro/ant-agonists. They try and turn the morally upstanding gleaming good guy Christopher Paget (JAG's David James Elliot) into a potentially pathological liar and killer. It does not, however, render him interesting or intriguing, just seemingly ineffectual. Good thing then we have the mentally vague and charismatically void Teresa Peralta (Spaceball's Daphne Zuniga) to consistently throw red herrings, hurt feelings, and abuse rhetoric at the screen. Without her exceedingly problematical home life and haunted night terrors, there'd be no intrigue here whatsoever. Not that her stupefying ineffectiveness in her own legal defense is all that believable. It makes you wonder how she ever had the gumption to get a JD in the first place.
Artisan provides a decent, full screen transfer of Degree of Guilt that is mostly defect and digital issue free. Since there is nothing spectacular or special about the way the movie was filmed, framed, composed, or created, it's an average presentation of an average looking motion picture. Thanks to the interminable length of the narrative, there is no further room for extra features. All we have here is a TV mini-series shorn of its Madison Avenue mantras.
For fans of author Richard North Patterson, Degree of Guilt may represent a chance to see their favorite literary characters come to small screen life. But others may have a difficult time finding sympathy with a bunch of lawyers who seem to fall into each other's protective and prurient arms the minute the police and prosecutors show up to secure a sensible search and seizure. The acting is tolerable and direction pedestrian, but it's the stuffed crust crappiness of the zip-bursting script that finally stalls this courtroom calamity. Even if the average criminal trial was a freewheeling circus of entertainment wonders (and they aren't -- they're exercises in human attention endurance), our tedious trial toads here simply slump around waiting for another subplot to pass by, all in an effort to avoid being entertainment roadkill. It doesn't work. In the end, Degree of Guilt is like a Senate subcommittee hearing on the preservation and protection of the feral albino razorback squirrel. As it drones on and on, you wonder why anyone cares and why it takes so long for everyone else to recognize the fact that no one really does.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 184 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated