When it comes to fortuitous plot developments, “The Guilty” is as guilty as they come. But despite being hackneyed and outlandish, this semi-slick programmer is never boring as its agreeably cheesy scenario dips and rebounds more than a grasshopper on a bungee cord. Tale of a sleazy married lawyer whose cushy lifestyle is threatened by his unchivalrous handling of a one-night stand won’t win any awards but remains compulsively watchable and ends with a nifty twist. Cast will draw in cable and video customers.
Ambitious criminal defense lawyer Callum Crane (Bill Pullman) is a courtroom ace with the morals of a nattily dressed snake. Despite his steady string of legal victories, a lovely wife (Joanne Whalley) — whose constant visits to her “therapist” mask other activity — two daughters by his wife’s first marriage and a house only slightly less lavish than Versailles, Crane drinks quite a bit.
Deliberately catching Crane’s eye her first day on the job, fetching new secretary Sophie (Gabrielle Anwar) joins Crane for those drinks. They end up at her apartment where she objects to his drunken advances, but he forces himself on her anyway.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, Nathan “Nat” Corrigan (Devon Sawa), fresh out of prison where he served six months for car theft, abruptly learns that his biological father was one (gasp!) Callum Crane — a law student when he had a one-night stand with Nat’s mom in 1975. Nat decides it’s time to meet Crane, who doesn’t know he fathered a child.
Within days of the rape, Sophie is fired and Crane is appointed to a federal judgeship. Sophie can’t bear the idea of a rapist on the bench and demands that he resign or else she’ll go to the police and the newspapers.
Meanwhile, Nat comes looking for his real dad just in time to save Crane from two vicious muggers. Taking Nat for a hardened criminal, Crane offers him the contract to hit the woman who’s blackmailing him. As luck would have it, Nat has met only two people so far in the big city: Sophie’s roommate, Tanya (Angela Featherstone), and, uh, Sophie herself.
This is just the groundwork for an exceedingly elaborate but clearly recounted thriller that leaves room for mental anguish, creative adultery, compound blackmail and moral fiber thwarted by criminal scum. There’s also that B-movie staple: a frequent urge to partially disrobe en route to and from the bath, practiced here by Anwar and Whalley.
Helmer Anthony Waller (“Mute Witness,” “An American Werewolf in Paris”) keeps things moving briskly. Pullman is clearly enjoying himself.