Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were certainly smart to anticipate the appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court -- and a conservative from the far West as well -- back in 1977. Their methods of exploiting this capital theatrical brainstorm are something else again, as the movie version of "First Monday in October" has now arrived to remind us.
I can't imagine the production being enhanced significantly by any means available to director Ronald Neame or costars Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh. The crucial weaknesses are inseparable from the text.
Like the wonderful Garson Kanin-Ruth Gordon script for "Adam's Rib," the disappointing Lawrence-Lee opus attempts to combine the comedy of sexual bickering with the comedy of ideological bickering. Matthau's Dan Snow, the Court's senior liberal ideologue and curmudgeon, regards the conservative newcomer, Clayburgh's Ruth Loomis, as his natural philosophical enemy. The plot is calculated to keep them wrangling self-righteously until a friendship evolves.
Nothing's wrong with the concept, of course, but the specific application leaves an infinite margin for error. "First Monday" goes astray by presuming a simple-minded taste on the part of the audience. Dan and Ruth first lock platitudes over a pornography case that seems poorly contrived and never gets resolved after prolonged, pointless fuss.
The State of Nebraska, insultingly represented by some bumbling redneck, advocates the suppression of a bogus "educational" feature, "The Naked Nymphomaniac." Dan, opposing all censorship on indiscriminate general principles, declines to attend a screening of the film, prompting Ruth to challenge his right to render an opinion on the case. Under the circumstances, she has an irrefutable point, but the circumstances are ludicrous. They don't justify a constitutional debate.
To hash out the pornography case, Dan and Ruth improvise a little courtroom drama, with Dan pretending to take the stand to answer Ruth's objections to his complacent position. The Act One case, it is designed to put the liberal on the defensive. The process is reversed in Act Two. When Dan suspects a multinational corporation accused of suppressing an energy-saving invention, it's Ruth who gives the benefit of the doubt to a shady operator. In fact, her late husband handled the legal affairs of the suspect corporation. She and Dan repeat their impromptu dramatization, now with Ruth on the stand. She ends up so much on the defensive that she becomes a sleuth and a whistleblower, uncovering and revealing evidence that implicates her dear departed.
In the real world, this startling revelation might be expected to compromise Ruth's position on the Court. Although she suggests as much, Dan brushes it off as a mere trifle. We're left with the loony impression that Dan and Ruth will continue as a Dynamic Duo, presumably on the Supreme Court, although it would make more sense to learn that they'd stepped down in order to pursue new careers as muckraking journalists.
Lawrence and Lee seem competent only when dealing with situations that have nothing to do with the characters' profession but involve little cultural details that differentiate the sexes -- for example, Ruth revealing casual powers of observation that Dan lacks or helpfully trying to feed him when he can't handle chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant.
Although Ruth qualifies as a superior, brainy heroine in theory only, it becomes Clayburgh to impersonate a woman who's supposed to know her own mind.
Lawrence and Lee seem to have written Dan with all due respect (to the late Justice William O. Douglas, among others), but he's a decaying repository of liberal cant. Matthau's rumpled personal charm is indispensable here; it takes some of the curse off this proudly undiscriminating champion of civil rights. I particularly admired the way Matthau waved a hand in curt dismissal when asked by a law clerk, "Any comment for The Washington Post?"