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Film review: Trial and Error

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A silly sitcom movie, "Trial and Error" does manage to deliver a few laughs. And, surprisingly, Jeff Daniels, who apparently took his "Dumb & Dumber" success to heart, is zanier and more over the top than Michael Richards!

Richards has parlayed his popularity as wacky Kramer on the "Seinfeld" TV series to this film, which offers his first starring role. He plays a sometime actor whose childhood best buddy is an up-and-coming lawyer (Daniels).

The plot is built around a supremely convoluted contrivance: Daniels is assigned to a case in a small rural Nevada town, he becomes ill and can't appear in court, so he has Richards take his place.

But what is supposed to be a simple continuance turns into a trial, and to keep themselves out of jail for fraud, Richards and Daniels must keep up the charade.

To stretch this paper-thin sketch to feature length, romantic subplots are introduced: Daniels falls for a local waitress (Charlize Theron); Richards is attracted to opposing counsel (Jessica Steen).

Occasionally, Richards and/or Daniels does something amusing, and a chuckle is provoked, but scenes that are obviously intended for big laughs tend to falter. Two examples: Daniels falls through the ceiling into the courtroom, disrupting the trial. And worse, a brief flashback at the beginning of the film has Richards auditioning for a stage role by doing an impression of a dying gangster. He throws himself against the wall, falls on the floor . . . . It's a bit reminiscent of Kramer, but may instead bring to mind "Liar Liar," in which Jim Carrey beats himself up in the restroom.

What almost saves the film, however, are a pair of supporting performances: Rip Torn, as the habitual con artist on trial, has a hilarious monologue toward the end, as he steps into the witness box to defend himself. And Austin Pendleton, as the increasingly frustrated judge, has some hysterical moments of exasperation.

The rest of the cast is appealing enough and the film is competent (if not particulary inspired) as directed by Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny," "Greedy," "The Distinguished Gentleman").

But the script (by three first-time writers) is too lightweight to carry its length. A "Saturday Night Live" skit, maybe. A 90-minute movie? Nah.

"Trial and Error" is rated PG-13, though it's really closer to PG territory, save some sexual innuendo when Daniels is confronted by his scantily clad fiance (Alexandra Wentworth). There is also some profanity and a few vulgar gags, along with comic violence.