The consensus among film critics seems to be that the “law movie” does not constitute a shaped genre comparable to the thriller or the romantic comedy. However, we can still speak more generally of movies in which a lawyer is a major character, a courtroom proceeding occurs, and the law itself has some role in the plot. Which are the most popular law-related movies of this sort in the history of the American cinema?
One answer to the question can be found on the International Movie Data Base website and on that website’s “All-Time USA Box Office Ranking.” The latter derives exclusively from theatrical box office sales and does not include video rentals, television rights, and other revenues. As of 2014, the most popular law-related movies are in order: “Liar Liar” (1997), “Chicago” (2002), “The Firm” (1993), “A Few Good Men” (1992), “Erin Brockovich” (2000), and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979).
I’m surprised by the list and by how few of the movies on the list correspond to what I consider the “best” law-related films. I’m also struck by how different the six movies are from one another. Indeed, going back to the notion of genre, with which I began this post, the six movies represent a wide range of genres.
Here’s how I would categorize the movies: “Liar Liar” is a comedy, one that includes no shortage of the slapstick for which Jim Carrey is famous or infamous, depending on your taste. “Chicago” is also a comedy and a musical comedy at that. “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The Firm” are examples, respectively, of the melodramatic tear-jerker and thriller. “Erin Brockovich” and “A Few Good Men” are conventional stories of individual growth and personal discovery, movies in which the protagonists ultimately reach higher levels of self-actualization.
Commentators are wont to say the U.S. is the most “legalistic” country in the world, and we do in fact have more lawyers, courts, and people in prison per capita than any other nation. Furthermore, the “legalistic” character of the American society is reflected in our popular culture. According to the Danish scholar Helle Porsdam, the popular culture of the U.S. – our movies, television shows, and best-selling books – shows the U.S. to be a “thoroughly law-permeated country.” The six strikingly different movies on the all-time box office list are “law-permeated,” and in a legalistic country with a legalistic popular culture, that doesn’t seem odd at all.