Hoping that lightning can strike twice, Showtime reunites acting powerhouses Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott for another remake of a classic (the first was “12 Angry Men”). In their updated script, Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith successfully incorporate the sharp dialogue from Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s original fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, but at the expense of crucial character development. Meanwhile, director Daniel Petrie Sr. emphasizes courtroom pontification. Even seasoned pros like Lemmon and Scott, who have most of the best lines, come off as tired, grumpy old lawyers fighting over an obscure state law that prohibits teaching anything that “denies the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible.”
In 1925, Dayton, Tenn., was to Charles Darwin’s theories what Cincinnati was to the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the ’80s. The play, which documents the drawing of battle lines between science and religion, became director Stanley Kramer’s acclaimed 1960 movie starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. It was also the source for two previous TV productions, a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” effort in the 1965-66 season, and the Emmy-winning remake in 1988.
One could argue the wisdom of not fixing something that ain’t broke, but a story of traditionalists in conflict with a younger generation desperate to forge ahead into the future has potential to evoke new meaning on the eve of the new millennium.
Lemmon and Scott play old friends turned adversaries in “Inherit the Wind”: Lemmon is the Clarence Darrow character, Henry Drummond, the most celebrated defense attorney in the country and a devoted agnostic; in the William Jennings Bryant role is Scott as Matthew Harrison Brady, a former presidential nominee and Bible thumper.
Old friends, they are nevertheless ideological foes, with the liberal progressive going head to head with the Christian fundamentalist. Tom Everett Scott plays schoolteacher Bertram Cates, the man standing trial, whose role is the least significant in this version of the story.
The trial has become a dog and pony show complete with lemonade stands and caged monkeys on display. Beneath the deceptive Southern hospitality of the townsfolk brews fear and fanaticism. All too aware of the negative publicity the case may generate, the members of the city council are also keenly aware of the money-making possibilities.
Members of the press from across the nation are on hand, including E.K. Hornbeck (Beau Bridges in the H.L. Mencken role), a heckling Baltimore reporter who sees the trial as fuel for his cynical columns.
Petrie maintains much of the flavor of the stage play — to the detriment of the production. Every performance has been turned up several notches, as if to reach the back row seats of a crowded theater. By the time viewers reach the emotional climax, there’s little emotion left but relief.
As Brady’s long-suffering wife Sarah, Piper Laurie adds some softer, more personal moments, but most of the secondary perfs, including that of Bridges as the reporter and Lane Smith as a zealous preacher, are far too over the top to be effective.
Technical credits are standard fare.