"What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?" Answer: "A good start." Har har har. Lawyers are just awful, aren't they? At least you'd think so after watching these five movies, all of which make lawyers look pretty bad (and in one case, literally the devil).
To be fair, this is the first in a two-part series (we'll look at positive lawyer depictions tomorrow). For now, though, here are five movies that make lawyers look terrible. (Needless to say, spoiler alerts!)
1. "The Devil's Advocate."
Of course it's No. 1. Al Pacino is literally the devil. This 1997 film, which used to be on TNT about twice a day, every day, stars a pre-"Matrix" Keanu Reeves as a criminal defense attorney who knows his child molesting client is guilty. In the movies, when a client is guilty, you see, you're supposed to just roll over and not defend him; instead, Keanu zealously represents his client and secures a not-guilty verdict.
This nefariousness attracts the attention of Al Pacino (whose name is "John Milton," as in, Paradise Lost, so there's a wink and a nod to English majors out there). Al Pacino hires Keanu into his posh New York firm, lavishing creature comforts and money on him. The climax of the movie happens when Keanu finds out that Al Pacino is literally the devil; he must choose between what's right and what's comfortable.
Moral of the story? If you defend guilty clients, you must be the devil.
2. "The Firm."
Star Harvard Law School graduate Tom Cruise gets hired by a prestigious Memphis law firm. They shower him with gifts, money, a car, a house -- and then it turns nasty.
Apparently, The Firm is connected to the mob, and there's some murder involved. The FBI wants Tom Cruise to spy on the firm; if he does that, he might get discovered. He'll lose his neat stuff and probably get killed. Tom Cruise finds a way to expose the firm without getting killed: He clues the FBI into the firm's overbilling scheme (really?), putting the firm out of business, and requiring the mob to get another law firm.
Young associate Tom Hanks is going places -- until he "misplaces" a very important document, which is miraculously found just before the deadline. His incompetence gets him fired from his prestigious law firm, where only weeks before the senior partners were talking about bringing him into their little club.
Hanks goes to Denzel Washington, a personal injury lawyer, with his problem: They didn't fire him because he was incompetent; they fired him because he was gay and had AIDS. Though the movie ends with a compelling courtroom scene in which Denzel Washington proves the partners knew Tom Hanks had AIDS, the senior partners -- including the late, fantastic Jason Robards -- come off as homophobic and evil.
In the film version of the musical "Chicago," Rene Zellweger confesses to murdering a man whom she'd been sleeping with to get a shot at being a vaudeville star. In prison, she enlists the help of superstar celebrity attorney Richard Gere to defend her. They concoct a story where Rene killed the man out of self-defense; she becomes a national sensation.
At the trial, Richard Gere, using some nefarious defense attorney tactics (he fakes Rene's diary entries so that he can use the diary to incriminate the district attorney), gets her acquitted. She loses her spotlight minutes later when a woman shoots her husband and his lawyer on the courthouse steps. In the end, though, Rene Zellweger gets to be the vaudeville star she always wanted to be.
5. "Michael Clayton."
After veteran attorney Tom Wilkinson has a breakdown in the middle of a deposition, the firm calls in "fixer" George Clooney. Tom Wilkinson found out that the client, an agricultural products company, was manufacturing a weed killer that it knew caused cancer. The company's general counsel, Tilda Swinton, calls up two hitmen and has Tom Wilkinson killed -- because that's how corporate law works.
Once George Clooney figures out what happened, the hitmen come after him, blowing up his car (that he thankfully wasn't in). He finally manages to get Tilda Swinton to admit that she killed Tom Wilkinson -- with a phone stashed in his pocket. The police come to arrest her and George Clooney leaves town, depressed -- probably because of all these movies that make lawyers look like murderous thieves.
Depressed yet? Don't be. Tomorrow, we'll redeem these cynical opinions on lawyers and look at the best depictions of lawyers in the movies. You know, lawyers who fight for justice and against oppression. Get your popcorn ready.