' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Legal Eagles (1986)

Friday, August 02, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Legal Eagles (1986)


Sometimes you can tell a lot from a movie poster and the “Legal Eagles” movie poster gives the game away quick. Its lavender hues denote the time as 1986, true, but I’m talking more about the forced grouping of the three stars – Robert Redford, Debra Winger, and Daryl Hannah. Redford is in front, leaning, casually kind of, and beaming that mega-watt smile, almost looking more the part of a “Three’s Company”-ish star than a silver screen leading man, who seems to be taking the four-sentence descriptor above as romantic comedy. Hannah, on the other hand, over Redford’s left shoulder, seems more focused on the murder portion of that descriptor, emitting the kind of air that comes with holding a bloody knife in the solarium. And Winger? Winger doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, emblemized in that “Wait, how do you want me to look expression?” that seems to have her so stressed she’s gripping the table. Indeed, director Ivan Reitman packs as many tones as product placement (“Legal Eagles”…brought to you by Miller Lite!), yet none successfully, rendering the whole affair boringly, weirdly blasé, a comedy that’s rarely funny and both a sex thriller and a legal thriller that’s never really sexy, hardly interested in the legal system, and negligibly thrilling.

The screenplay of Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. seeks to combine the world of art and the law, though it seems to view the latter less as thumbing through law books, long hours at the office and inside courtrooms than snooping around and spying, the fanciful notions of jaded law students everywhere. “Legal Eagles’” relationship to art, meanwhile, is even more suspect, knowing the names and works of some prominent artists, at least, but defined in the moment where Redford’s Assistant D.A. Tom Logan briefly studies a Picasso and seems confused by the hoopla, shades of Caldeon Hockley dismissing Picasso as mere “finger paintings.” Uff da. The most vital artist here, anyway, is fictional, Sebastian Deardon (James Hurdle), who dies in a suspicious fire as the movie opens, and whose daughter Chelsea (Hannah) in the present day is accused of stealing a painting from a millionaire because she insists her father left it to her. Her attorney, Laura Kelly (Winger), cleverly finds a way to ensnare Tom, her nemesis, in the case, and his ensnarement worsens when he is caught in bed with Chelsea.

This twist sounds steamy, evoked in the newspaper headlines it engenders, though the scene itself is representative of how “Legal Eagles” repeatedly goes wrong, with the salaciousness of Chelsea showing up at Tom’s apartment, fearing for her safety and wet from the rain, canceled out by the fact Tom is looking after his adolescent daughter. What’s more, if this nominally paramount twist causes Tom to lose his job and then become co-legal counsel for Chelsea, suggesting a burgeoning relationship of great complication, Laura falls for Tom and him for her instead, his sleeping with Chelsea not so much written out but just forgotten as if it never happened.


Redford’s frequently bemused smile opposite Hannah might be intended to denote the character’s professional quagmire in these moments, but more so it comes to emblemize the actor’s own confusion about what he emotion he is supposed to be playing. Not that his so-so performance can be totally pinned on the script. He exposes himself as not cut out for pure comedy, like an early scene where he sort of half-asses it through Tom’s oven catching on fire, not playing it with enough domestic fish-out-of-water franticness, while his air opposite Winger never goes all in on screwball mania. He’s only in his element inside the courtroom, like the climactic trial where he feigns belief in the prosecutor’s opening statement to deftly turn it around and make a plea to the jury for a fair trial, a moment where Redford delicately lets you see the All-American innocence shade into seductive manipulation. If Reitman had set more of the movie in the courtroom, maybe it could have been partially salvaged.

Hannah, on the other hand, remains abstruse, always like she’s up to something, which the script suggests she is even as it somehow simultaneously ignores that she might be, sort of suggesting Elke Sommer in “A Shot in the Dark” filtered through Ellen Barkin in “Sea of Love”, or something. Her character is also a performance artist, illustrated in a scene where she exhibits her one-woman show of fireballs and self-identity for Redford’s character, a wild, woolly affair that is, like Tom’s off-hand dismissal of Picasso, meant to poke fun at art. Even so, Hannah takes it seriously, and if it’s batshit, shit, at least it’s got vision, which is more than I can say for Reitman. If only Chelsea Deardon had written and directed. That might have been interesting.

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