JUDICIAL REVIEW: Liar Liar (1997)

In which I review movies with a legal focus.

Timothy N. Sullivan lawyer Ottawa

Starring:  Jim Carrey, Moira Tierney, Jennifer Tilly, Justin Cooper, Swoozie Kurtz, Carey Elwes

Brief

Jim Carrey’s character “Fletcher” is a lawyer who places prestige, fashion, status and financial success above all other priorities, including his son (Justin Cooper as “Max) from a defunct marriage.  Fletcher is a good father – when he shows up.

Fletcher goes through a conversion of sorts as a result of Max’s birthday wish that his father not be able to lie “for one day”.

A Peek at who got Costs*

Fletcher becomes a new man and improved father, but at the very last moment he possibly can.

The movie is more character-driven than legal-oriented.  It is less about the stereotype of a lying lawyer than about the daily white lies and nuances adults rely on to get by.  Make no mistake, however.  Fletcher lies – as a father, an ex-husband to Moira Tierney’s character “Audrey”, a son, an employee, a boss and yes, in his day job as a lawyer.

The facts

The film opens with Max explaining to his teacher what his mother, Audrey, does for a living.  When asked about his father, Fletcher, he says he’s a “liar”, but when prompted, he explains he wears a suit and speaks to judges in court.  The teacher catches on and corrects the pronunciation from “liar” to “lawyer”.  Max appears indifferent to the distinction.

Fletcher, coming off a success in court, is asked to take on a divorce case for Jennifer Tilly’s character, Samantha Cole, as the original lawyer insisted on proceeding aggressively but within the bounds of decency and honesty.  Samantha wanted neither.  In comes Fletcher who explains to Tilly’s character how her “one” (which is actually 7) indiscretion was caused by hardship in the marriage, but which does not accord with the facts.  Winning Samantha’s case, at any cost, is a clear path to law firm partnership for Fletcher.  Tilly’s character is stuck with a marriage contract preventing her from receiving a property settlement worth about $11 million dollars, if she is found to have committed adultery.  There apparently is an offer on the table for $2.5 million with convincing evidence of infidelity.

Meanwhile, Fletcher misses many visitations with Max without a good excuse.  When they are together, bedlam, silliness and fun ensues, much to Audrey’s satisfaction.  The problem is always that Fletcher is always late or misses the access entirely, much to Max’s and Audrey’s disappointment.

Although he had promised to attend Max’s birthday party, he missed it for “professional advancement” purposes with a female partner of the firm.

Max wishes while blowing out the candles at 8:15 pm that “for just one day” his father cannot lie.

We know the wish takes effect immediately when Fletcher explains to the law partner that he’s had better experiences with others.  This makes his advancement to partner a rocky prospect.

Fletcher realizes he is incapable of telling a lie, be it to himself, in writing, or verbally, to his assistant or to anyone.  He realizes he has to request an adjournment of Samantha’s divorce case the following day, which is denied as he cannot provide a false reason.

Samantha’s case goes poorly since the premise Fletcher established when he could lie could not be followed through with evidence.  Samantha is an entirely despicable character.  When she brings her children with their nanny to the courtroom, yelling at the nanny all along, Fletcher asked why she brought the kids.  “For sympathy” she replied.  Fletcher’s response: “Well it worked.  I feel badly for them already.”

During one of his many attempts to see Max that day, Fletcher’s honesty gets him into trouble as he admits to a traffic cop all of his traffic offenses and his unpaid tickets.  As Audrey helps him get his car out of impound, he learns two things: Carey Elwes’ character, Jerry, whom Audrey had been dating for 8 months, has asked her to move with him to Boston with Max, and that Max had made the fateful wish.

Fletcher takes Max out of school so he can make a new wish to undo the old wish.  Fletcher admits to some truths children wonder about.  When Max stretches his face and asks if his face can stay that way, Carrey’s character says no, and “in fact some people make a good living that way.”  At every opportunity for Fletcher to lie but cannot, Carrey performs the facial and physical contortions for which he has become famous.

Fletcher explains to Max that “sometimes grown-ups need to lie … no one can survive in the adult world if they have to stick to the truth.”  He recites some examples of white lies and admits that everyone lies, including Mommy and Jerry.  When Max says “But you’re the only one who makes me feel bad”, Fletcher realizes he risks losing Max to Boston and that that would be a real loss.

The re-wish does not work and Fletcher is forced to carry on his day with the burden of having to tell the truth.  To this day I like the legal advice he provides to one of his long-time criminal clients when he’s called after “knocking over” (robbing someone) an ATM … with a knife.  Fletcher yells into the phone legal advice I am sure many lawyers have wanted to give: “Stop breaking the law, asshole!”

Fletcher plugs his way through the first (and apparently only day) of a complex divorce case.  He wins on a point of law (spoiler alert!) discussed below.

Knowing Samantha’s shear mendacity, the sympathy he has for her children and his knowledge that the father is in fact a good father, Fletcher lets loose on the court for the unfairness that exists in cases without merit proceeding premised on legal fictions and outright lies.  For his conduct, he ends up in jail on a contempt charge.

Once bailed out by his secretary, Fletcher makes his way to the airport to intercept Audrey and Max en route to Boston.  Hilarity and pre-9-11 airport security lapses ensue.

A year later, Max makes a wish at his next birthday and Audrey and Fletcher appear to be reunited after the candles go out.  Max wished for …

The law

There is very little law discussed in the film.  Sure, it is illegal to rob someone at an ATM with a knife.

Central to Samantha’s divorce case success is the question of the enforceability of the “pre-nup”.  Fletcher realizes that Samantha was under the age of 18 when she signed her marriage contract.  In Ontario and in most jurisdictions, one has to be 18 years old to enter into a contract for anything other than the necessities of life.  In California where Fletcher practices in Liar Liar, parental consent appears to be required for minors to sign contracts, including pre-nups.  There was no parental consent so the waiver of spousal support and property division is unenforceable.

Analysis

The movie is not about the law and lawyers, but about mendacity.  Jim Carrey brings his physical comedy to the screen in his attempts to lie.

Fletcher’s frequent requests for a “continuance” lead him at one point to beat himself up physically to prevent him from proceeding.  When asked if he can proceed, he has to answer, regretfully “yes”.

In Liar Liar, Fletcher was brought on board as Samantha’s counsel to commence a multi-million dollar divorce the day before it was to start.  The portrayal of court cases without any paper in movies and television continue unabashedly.  Fletcher walks into court without the boxes of paper frequently needed on the smallest of procedures.  His trial was started in at 1:00 o’clock by the end of the day he had won over $11 million dollars after having met the client only the day before.

The premise that Fletcher cannot do as well as he is expected because he is incapable of lying is an unfortunate stereotype of lawyers.  Lawyers in Ontario are governed by a code of ethics which states in part that lawyers must treat other lawyers and the courts with candour.

But not too much candour, please.  Lawyers are not intended to be fonts of information for the public, opposing parties or the state.  Privilege and confidentiality are necessary elements for a lawyer to protect to do one’s job properly and solicitor-client privilege belongs to the client.

Timothy N Sullivan Ottawa lawyer family law

Findings

Liar Liar is funny.  I’d not liked Carrey in some films but Fletcher’s humanity, his love for his son and the respect he shows Audrey and her choices makes Liar Liar a realistic (excepting the effect of a birthday wish) tale of a separated family going through transition.

I have seen, to disruptive and harmful results, separated parents using their children in power-struggles to demonstrate control.  It saddens me.  Fletcher’s cavalier attitude regarding access with his son is not good, but he sees the errors of his way – eventually.

One thing at odds with my experience is a mother simply informing the father that she is moving with a child far away.  Even if the mother has custody and can make that decision, the father’s access, which is a right of the father and the child, is put into play and had to be negotiated or litigated to determine what changes, if any, are appropriate for the child.

Jerry is an admirable but minor character.  He admits he loves Max and wants to include Max as much as he wants to include Audrey in his life.  Somewhat disturbing, however, is his belief that his relationship with Max is on par with Max’s relationship with Fletcher.  Jerry is blind to Audrey’s apparently uncertain commitment to the relationship.  Jerry is too “Magoo” in Fletcher’s words, to which Audrey does not object as accurate.  He’d make a good and loving step-parent but he should know his role.  In my experience, the new additions to separated families play a very important role.  However, that role can be very positive if it is supportive, or have negative effects on the children if the role is too adversarial.

Obiter Dicta

Liar Liar was filmed principally in Los Angeles in 1996.  It was a scorcher and there were production problems arising from the intensive sun and heat.  Lighting was a frequent challenge to the producers.

Due to budget problems with a new prison at the time of filming, a local jail was available to film on location before inmates were housed.

Jim Carrey, who was born in Newmarket, Ontario, became one of the highest paid actors in the 1990s with frequent box office successes, including Liar Liar.  His physical comedy is legend and, true to the advice to Max, lots of money can be earned making one’s face stretch.

Carrey received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Liar Liar, and an MTV Movie Award and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for this film.

For her despicability, Tilly earned an American Comedy Award nomination for best supporting actress and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actress in a Comedy.

Young Justin Cooper as Max received a Blockbuster Entertainment Award nomination for his work in Liar Liar.

Moira Tierney, who is best known as “Lisa Miller” in News Radio, grew up in Boston.  Her father was a lawyer.

Appeal

So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at office@sullivanlaw.ca and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “Liar Liar” in the subject line of the email.

Credits

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Next on the Docket

Witness for the Prosecution