Thursday, November 18, 2010

One Angry Juror (Entertainment One/Lifetime, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was One Angry Juror, an interesting variation on Twelve Angry Men in which the protagonist is a woman attorney, Sarah Walsh (Kate Capshaw), who's married (or at least living with, we're not quite sure) a fellow attorney who's played by one of those blankly semi-attractive sandy-haired lanky types that are Lifetime's favorite sort of leading man. She gets picked for the jury on a case involving Walter Byrd (Shomari Downer), a hapless young African-American who so far has avoided any arrests or other interactions with the criminal justice system even though he's living in a Chicago neighborhood filled with gangstas and is a regular customer of a bad-ass drug dealer with gang ties. Said drug dealer is murdered in the opening sequence of the movie (and he's by far the hunkiest man in the cast, so at least aesthetically it's a real pity to see him go so soon) and Walter gets the crime pinned on him, largely due to the rock-solid identification of him as the shooter by the dead man's 15-year-old sister.

Sarah works for a big-time corporate law firm (in its Chicago setting and frank acknowledgment of the politics and corruption endemic to big-city "justice" Rachel Abramowitz's script is strikingly reminiscent of the TV series The Good Wife, though the conflicts here are nowhere nearly as subtle or nuanced as they are in that show) which specializes in defending fast-food chains against lawsuits from environmentalists and consumers -- in court she jokingly refers to herself as "the champion of the French fry," to which the judge laconically replies that he hadn't been aware the French fry needed a champion -- and she's just been assigned the biggest case of her career: defending the Anytime Burger chain against a class-action suit that alleges a continuing pattern of sexual harassment of female employees by their male supervisors. (Did Abramowitz intend the name "Anytime Burger" as a piece of irony? It wouldn't be the only odd in-joke in her script, as we'll see later.)

The case goes before the jury and at first the vote is 11 to 1 in favor of conviction, with Sarah the only one insisting that there's reasonable doubt: though she isn't able to sway the entire jury to her side like the protagonist of Twelve Angry Men, she is able to win four other jurors to vote for acquittal, the foreman announces to the judge that they're deadlocked and the judge declares a mistrial. Sarah is then approached by Walter Byrd's grandmother, to whom Abramowitz gave the amazing character name "Mahalia Robeson," to see if she'll take his case and represent him in the second trial. Aided by a Black private investigator, she researches the case and finds the initial cop in the case, Runyon, had a history of "disappearing" files of initial interrogations that might help defense attorneys representing the people he arrested.

She also locates a second eyewitness to Walter's actual whereabouts on the night of the murder -- he was playing poker with a group of his friends, and unfortunately though he never did any drugs stronger than pot his fellow poker players were all on heroin, crack or both, which makes them fairly useless as witnesses. They do find one of them and actually get him admitted to a rehab program -- only he somehow gets a dose into his room and dies of an O.D. Meanwhile, Sarah's boss at the law firm chides her for neglecting her paying job for the rich corporate client who's giving them lots of money to escape responsibility in favor of this pro bono case representing one more prospect-less Black guy who (as the corrupt police officer who framed him explains) is probably guilty of something even if he's innocent of the crime he's actually been charged with. It ends the way we expect it to, with Sarah getting her client off and making a Grisham-esque speech to her husband (or boyfriend, or whatever) telling him she's quit her job at the big law firm so she can reconnect with her youthful ideals and once again believe in the law as a force for justice instead of just another commodity people with money can buy more of than people without it.

One Angry Juror is nothing special plot-wise but it's well written, engagingly directed by Paul A. Kaufman (except for a gratuitous series of split-screen effects that add little or nothing and only manage to be annoying) and quite vividly acted, especially by the Black actor playing the P.I. (indeed I couldn't help but wish Abramowitz had made Sarah single and paired her off with the hot Black P.I. at the end instead of that boring milquetoast of a husband of hers!) and the young woman who played the sister -- she's not listed by name on but she's got a great future ahead of her: she captures the character's mix of arrogance (in the first trial she says that she wasn't fed information by the police that led her to I.D. Walter as the killer of her brother; rather, she says, "God tapped me on the shoulder" and led her to make the I.D. -- a line that fools the heavy-duty Christian woman on the jury for a while) and unscrupulousness, topped by an unshakable self-righteousness -- and for all her penchant for weird character names and weak attempts at irony, Abramowitz deserves points for being aware that attorneys cross-examining hostile witnesses almost never "break" them in one decisive Perry Mason-esque question; rather, they wear them down, trapping them in more and more contradictions until their stories seem incredible to jurors. This is the sort of movie those of us who watch Lifetime regularly (especially those of us as far from their core audience demographic as I am!) wait and hope for; I've seen better productions there (including a few quite good movies like The Good Girl and Speak that got at least semblances of theatrical releases) but this is quite entertaining and even genuinely moving.