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February 19, 2012

Guest post: Best of 2011 law-related movies

by dan rodriguez

Dana Hill teaches Communication and Legal Reasoning at Northwestern Law.  Following a stint writing movie reviews while attending Northwestern Law for Hoops, the student weekly, Dana has been sending out Academy Awards predictions since 2000.  Her friends assure her that they enjoying reading them.  

With the Academy Awards coming up on Sunday, February 26, it seems appropriate to highlight some of the best recent movies involving lawyers and legal issues.  While two movies on this list have received Oscar attention, a few have been overlooked and all are worth checking out.

The Descendants

This Best Picture nominee stars George Clooney as Matt King, an Oahu real estate lawyer, who is also the trustee for the last piece of privately-owned non-developed land on Kauai.  As descendants of one of the last members of Hawaii’s royalty, Matt and his extended family are required by the rule against perpetuities to dissolve the estate within the next seven years.   As trustee, Matt has the ultimate decision on which developer to sell to.  Take note property professors:  this story would make a great starting point for an exam question.  (Between this film and PBS’ “Downton Abbey”, land transference is having a pop culture moment.)

The land issues are background to the main story.  A workaholic, Matt has neglected his wife, an extreme sports enthusiast who suffers a traumatic head injury during a speedboat race.  While she’s in a coma, Matt must take charge of his two daughters, a precocious pre-teen and a misbehaving high schooler who has been shipped off to private school.   As Alex, the older daughter, Shailene Woodley is nominated for Best Supporting Actress and she carries a lot of the movie.  Along with her deeper-than-he-appears boyfriend, Alex helps Matt deal with his wife’s impending death and track down the man his wife was having an affair with prior to her accident.

Director Alexander Payne gets right the details of a lawyer’s lifestyle:  Matt works on a legal pad in his wife’s hospital room; his office is stacked with files; he wasn’t around much to spend time with his kids.  As in “Michael Clayton”, I bought Clooney as a lawyer – when he stops to think, you actually believe he’s thinking and he’s nearly always a few steps ahead of the other characters.

The Descendants is not the feel-good movie of the year, but is an excellent family drama about smart, decent, yet flawed people with a plot that takes some unexpected turns.  The Descendants is playing in theaters.

Win Win

Paul Giamatti leads a cast of stellar character actors in this overlooked film by writer-director Tom McCarthy, who directed “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” and played the ethically-challenged reporter in the final season of “The Wire.”   Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a suburban New Jersey solo practitioner.  Mike’s business has slowed down and he’s having trouble supporting his practice, where the office’s boiler is on the verge of breakdown, and wife (Amy Ryan) and two daughters.

While representing an elderly client (Burt Young) in court, he can’t help but take the opportunity to be appointed as the client’s guardian, for which he’ll receive a monthly stipend.  Rather than using the stipend to care for the old man at his home, Mike pockets the money and puts the old man in a nursing home.   Mike is able to justify his unethical behavior: the old man has no one else to care for him and Mike needs the money.  Complications arise when his client’s teenage grandson, Kyle, arrives from Ohio, seeking a place to live.

In addition to working as a lawyer, Mike coaches the local high school’s wrestling team, assisted by his office-mate (the always hilarious Jeffrey Tambor).  It turns out Kyle is a star wrestler!  Kyle puts his trust in Mike, setting up Mike’s moral reckoning.

The legal issues are a nice set up to this story.  Again, Giamatti is believable as a struggling practitioner.  Lawyers at any level can be tempted to make dubious ethical choices to justify making more money.  Mike’s clothes, home and office are contrasted nicely with those of his well-off friend Terry, played with joyful dimwittedness by Bobby Cannavale.  I also liked the interactions between Mike and his opposing counsel (Margot Martindale) who calls Mike out on his misbehavior, but tries to give him time to do the right thing.

Win Win was my favorite talkie of 2011 (that’s right, my Best Picture pick is “The Artist”).   Win Win is available on video.

The Lincoln Lawyer

These days, any review of a movie starring Matthew McConaughey is required to mention whether or not he appears shirtless in it.  He does.  I can assure you that this movie is very entertaining in spite of (or perhaps due to, depending on your point of view) that fact.  This movie fits squarely in the legal thriller genre and the best thing about genre films is that, as a viewer, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the characters because you don’t have to worry about the plot: you know what’s going to happen.  This film foreshadows its events pretty well.  I won’t give it away but if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is, who dies and who couples up, then you haven’t seen enough movies.

McConaughey is Mick, a smart-ass LA criminal defense lawyer who works out of the back seat of his classic, black Lincoln.  He’s chauffeured around by Earl (Laurence Mason) because he has one too many DUIs.  Referred by a bail bondsman (John Leguizamo), Mick takes that case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a rich kid who is accused of sexual assault. Wouldn’t you know Mick’s ex-wife Maggie (Marissa Tomei) is the prosecutor initially assigned to the case?   Something’s not quite right and Mick, along with help from his investigator friend (William H. Macy) and in spite of a cop-with-a-grudge (Bryan Cranston), works to figure out what really happened.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.  It’s great to see McConaughey actually performing, a reminder of his breakout performance in “A Time to Kill.”  Marissa Tomei, who also made her big break in a legal movie, “My Cousin Vinny”, is a welcome treat, believable as a prosecutor because she’s playing a woman her own age. As the trial prosecutor, Josh Lucas has a chance to do what every trial lawyer dreads: asking one too many questions.   The Lincoln Lawyer doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a solid, enjoyable legal thriller with a fantastic cast.

The Lincoln Lawyer is available on video.

A Separation

This Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Iran deals with the impact of the marital separation of one couple on two families.  The couple, Nader and Simin, are middle-class and moderately religious.  They’ve planned to move abroad from Tehran, but now that the time has come, the husband, Nader, refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer’s afflicted father, forcing Simin to file for divorce.  When a judge won’t allow Simin to take the couple’s teen daughter abroad without her husband’s consent, Simin moves out of the family home to live with her parents.  This sets up the key events of the film: Nader hires a lower-class woman, Razieh, to act as caretaker for his father.  With her own husband facing jail for owing money to his creditors, Razieh goes to work in a “single” man’s home (a no-no) and must seek religious permission to change the elderly man’s soiled clothing.  A dispute arises between Nader and Razieh, leading each to file charges against the other in court.

The courtroom scenes are fascinating.  Without lawyers, the parties plead their case directly to a judge-interrogator.  As passions run high, the judge’s expressions are familiar to American litigators: exasperation, impassivity, and internal struggle to do what’s right.

What’s also fascinating is how the women in the film, including the mousy teen daughter, work behind the scenes to gather information and settle disputes.  They’ve learned how to assert themselves within their gender-defined roles.  The two husbands come off less well.  Though a good man, Nader is willing to lie when it serves a greater good for himself and his family, but is also willing to exploit Razieh’s religious convictions in his favor to protect his honor.

While A Separation is not exactly a fun night out, if you want to see a smart movie about adult life’s complications, it is worth your time.

A Separation is playing in limited theatrical release.

The Interrupters

This documentary follows members of a Chicago anti-violence program called CeaseFire, during a year in which violence among Chicago’s teenagers captured national attention.  CeaseFire believes that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases, and so the treatment should be similar: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. The “interrupters” are former gang members who work to stop violence before it happens, mediating altercations between gang members, families, and even children as a way to end the cycle of violence-retribution-violence.  Specifically, the film follows three interrupters:  Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a prominent Chicago gang leader who is now a married mother; Cobe Williams, a former gang member with multiple prison stints who now lives with his wife and children in the far suburbs; and Eddie Bocanegra, a former car thief and gang enforcer who still struggles with a murder he committed 16 years ago.   As they help others change their lives, the interrupters reveal their own redemptive stories.

Director Steve James (“Hoops Dreams”) and co-producer Alex Kotlowitz (author of “There Are No Children Here”) avoid the traps of exploiting their subjects or offering easy answers. Particularly when people, including children, talk on camera about the impact violence has had on their lives and in their neighborhood, you can see the empathy and respect that the interrupters have for their experiences.

No lawyers appear in The Interrupters and the police are only seen in the background, which perhaps shows how our legal system isn’t presently equipped to stop violence at its source.   As a Chicagoan who is not confronted with violence on a daily basis, The Interrupters provided insight into issues that are, frankly, all too often, easy for me to ignore.

The Interrupters recently aired on Frontline on PBS and is also available on video:

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