Reunion movies of long-gone popular TV shows are often just occasions for us to cough politely while averting our eyes from saggy actors in baggy plots. But L.A. Law: The Movie has a few things going for it. For one, the core cast from the 1986-94 series has been reassembled, and as assembly-line products go, they’ve held up well. Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey, seen just weeks ago having the bejesus scared out of them in the hokey TBS telefilm Disappearance, reprise their roles as starcrossed Michael Kuzak (now a restaurateur brought back into law practice to free an innocent old client on death row) and Grace Van Owen (a district attorney who wants the guy to fry). Richard Dysart is lured out of retirement as the firm’s unflappable paterfamilias, Leland McKenzie, while Alan Rachins has clipped his Dharma & Greg ponytail to reemerge as fussbudget Douglas Brackman Jr., now head of McKenzie-Brackman. Corbin Bernsen is an older and soon-to-be-wiser Arnie Becker, a divorce lawyer now involved in his own divorce. Michael Tucker’s and Jill Eikenberry’s attorneys Stuart and Ann are still working way too hard on their marriage — they’ve been seeing a Deepak Chopra-esque guru (played charmingly by Gedde Watanabe — that nice nurse Yosh from ER!) for spiritual enlightenment. And, in the sad-sack department, perpetually teary-eyed office manager Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) resists reconciliation attempts by her depressingly boring ex, Dave (Law & Order: SVU’s Dann Florek), while what the press release calls ”beloved office assistant” Benny (Larry Drake) is still schlepping coffee and doughnuts around to his superiors. These roles may vary in quality, but at least the movie reintroduces them all in a way that offers some update (Benny’s pushing Krispy Kremes these days) and oomph (Hamlin, fetchingly sunken-cheeked, actually seems into his role, unlike the last few seasons he spent on Law’s original run).
Another element that helps L.A. Law: The Movie is that it was written by William Finkelstein, a former Law writer-producer-show runner who went on to work on three other thoughtful dramas, Civil Wars (1991-93), Murder One (1995- 97), and Brooklyn South (1997-98), as well as to cocreate one of TV history’s few atom (stink) bombs, the 1990 musical drama Cop Rock. Finkelstein and director Michael Schultz (everything from Ally McBeal to the feature Car Wash) keep the Law subplots rolling, and for every new face who’s a dud (Jason Peck’s bland son of Brackman serves only to give Rachins a sentimental scene), there’s an old face providing a pleasant surprise (cagey Alan Rosenberg reprises the role of Eli Levinson, which he originated in Civil Wars and transferred over to Law in its final season).
The movie also benefits from what it lacks: the smart-aleck joke plots that writer David E. Kelley wove into the show starting in ‘89, when Law cocreator Steven Bochco took the I’m-outta-here credit of ”executive consultant.” Kelley is credited with stunts like dropping lawyer Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) down an elevator shaft—a shocking way to literally dump a character. On the other hand, Kelley’s greatest asset — his essential tough-mindedness as a writer — probably wouldn’t have permitted the treacle Finkelstein works into Hamlin’s subplot, that of a ”mentally disabled” man who gives up crucial evidence only due to the Krispy Kreme kindness of Benny.
No, there’s no Jimmy Smits, no cheeky Amanda Donohoe, no John Spencer (remember his nifty, hustling Tommy Mullaney before his West Wing glory days?). Bernsen’s Arnie learns a life lesson in maturity that is all too predictable; on the other hand, a firm-in-both-senses associate played by Josie Davis (cunning Camille Desmond on Beverly Hills, 90210) makes her stockings swish commandingly as she slinks around the office, trolling for career advancement. It’s avid, grasping young Josie, ultimately, who reminds us what Law originally symbolized: the greed-is-good ’80s, a looser time when the economy was goosier. Honk if you still remember. B