After a spectacular run in the early ’70s, Al Pacino slid into a long period of mediocrity beginning with 1977’s racecar-themed dud Bobby Deerfield and continuing with this chaotic comedy-drama. Although Justice did okay at the box office and earned two Oscar nominations (including one for Pacino), it’s a perplexing mixture of farce and social commentary. Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, a Baltimore lawyer described by everyone around him as both an exceptional litigator and a paragon of legal ethics. Yet we never actually see Kirkland do his job well—instead, he regularly breaks confidentiality, fights with judges, and loses cases. In striving to define Kirkland as a moral island in a sea of corruption, screenwriters Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson ended up treating the character as a symbol of righteous indignation rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Worse, their narrative is contrived and overstuffed.
The story proper begins when a hard-driving judge, Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), is accused of rape. For convoluted reasons, Fleming asks Kirkland to represent him, even though they’re bitter enemies. Kirkland takes the case because he needs a favorable ruling from Fleming in order to exonerate a wrongly imprisoned client. Other plot elements include a judge contemplating suicide, a lawyer going insane because he helped a killer avoid prosecution, and a transvestite living in terror at the prospect of prison. Funny stuff, right? The fact that Curtin and Levinson treat this dark material with sitcom-style dialogue feels cheap and distasteful, especially since the film’s dramatic scenes work so much better than the comedy bits.
In particular, the interaction between Forsythe and Pacino, two actors with completely different styles, is surprisingly interesting: Forsythe infuses his customary elegant reserve with an undercurrent of hateful menace, so Pacino’s exasperation in Forsythe’s presence is believable. In fact, all of the movie’s performances are good, with Christine Lahti, Lee Strasberg, and especially Jeffrey Tambor giving formulaic characters a degree of flesh-and-blood reality. However, the great Jack Warden is underused as the suicidal judge, because he’s mostly stuck performing stupid comedy like a wild helicopter ride that, one presumes, was meant to be outrageously funny.
Director Norman Jewison handles individual scenes with his usual skill, but no filmmaker could stitch these discordant pieces together into a coherent whole. Plus, among its myriad other flaws, Justice is arguably the movie that introduced the world to Screamin’ Al, the latter-day Pacino performance style distinguished by vein-popping volume. “Out of order? You’re out of order!” Indeed you are, sir.
. . . And Justice for All: FUNKY