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Swimming with the Bottom Feeders

By Robert L. Waring (November 1997)

Now out on video, Liar, Liar is another in a rapidly growing list of lawyer bashing movies. Some of the ads for the film contained the headline "Lawyer, Lawyer" which was crossed out with the words "Liar, Liar" written over in red. This tone is reinforced in the first scene where the lawyer’s five-year-old son is asked to tell his kindergarten class what his father does for a living. He tells the them his father is a liar. When the teacher questions this, he explains that his father wears a suit, goes to the courthouse and talks to the judge. "Oh, you mean a lawyer," she exclaims. The son shrugs his shoulders as if to say—whatever.

There are plenty of funny scenes, especially if one is in the mood for lawyer bashing. A judge says to the lawyer, "One more word out of you, and I’ll hold you in contempt." The lawyer, played by comic Jim Carey, replies, "I hold myself in contempt, your honor. Why should you be any different?" In the film makers’ minds, every lawyer in America deserves to engage in that sort of self-deprecation.

The rather predictable plot is sort of a cross between Regarding Henry and My Cousin Vinny. A lawyer too busy to care for his family is suddenly stricken with an affliction which cripples his ability to practice law in the manner to which he was accustomed, and he rediscovers the value of family bonds. In this case the affliction is an inability to lie. At the same time, a lawyer working under a considerable handicap nonetheless manages to win an important trial because he notices a small factual detail that everyone else had overlooked.

The most interesting thing about the movie, Liar, Liar, is not what’s in it, but what was left out. This is best understood in the context of OJ, that paradigm shift that changed criminal law as we know it. The influence of OJ is felt in the initial seconds Carey is on the screen. One of the first persons he encounters while descending the court house steps is none other than OJ prosecutor Christopher Darden, appearing in a blink-of-an-eye cameo.

The film originally introduced the Carey character in a four minute scene where he made a closing argument to a jury in a criminal trial. Carey’s client, a rough looking type, is accused of robbing an elderly man at an ATM and stealing his wallet and his car. Carey explains his client’s actions as being first motivated by fear—he saw a reflection from the hologram on the old man’s ATM card and thought the old man had a gun—which was why he knocked the old man to the ground. Then, invoking the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, Carey says his client borrowed the old man’s Lexis so he could find a telephone to summon aid and borrowed his wallet so that he could identify the injured man to rescuers. Carey successfully transforms his robber-client into the heroic victim of an unfortunate misunderstanding. His sad tale continues with a similarly sympathetic, yet ridiculous explanation of his client’s bashing the face of a female police officer while resisting arrest.

On the Signature Edition laser disk, which is contains the deleted scene, the director explains that he cut the four minute jury summation because it made the first act of the ninety-seven-minute movie too long. While this may speak volumes about the mentality and attention span of the target audience for this film, it leaves unanswered the question as to whether bad taste may have also been a factor in this editing choice. Even though this scene did not make the final cut, it is a valuable illustration of the fact that criminal defense lawyers have fallen a long way in Hollywood since Perry Mason. Criminal defense lawyers now have the lowest image in a profession of bottom feeders, and the bottom is nowhere in sight.

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