LAWYERS AREN'T very popular these days, and defense attorneys who get the guilty acquitted are considered the lowest of the breed. The Devil's Advocate, based on a novel by Andrew Niederman, exploits these negative stereotypes by making the “evil one” the senior partner of a prestigious Manhattan law firm. Many of his key subordinates are recruited from the best and brightest of those who have proven they can work the justice system for the benefit of the criminal class.

“The law is like my priesthood,” the fallen angel proudly proclaims.

It's as if The Screwtape Letters were rewritten as a handbook for aspiring attorneys.

This is a clever idea executed with a slick, over-the-top style, but it's used only to entertain rather than enlighten. The movie never attempts a serious examination of ethics in the legal profession. It glosses over the complexity of issues involved in a code of justice that emphasizes “reasonable doubt” in determining innocence or guilt. Convoluted plot twists and an over-reliance on explicit sexuality take the place of a thoughtful presentation of moral conflicts.

Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a Gainesville, Fla., defense attorney with 64 wins and no defeats. It looks as though he is going to finally lose as the evidence against his present client, a math teacher accused of sexual molestation, appears overwhelming. But Lomax cruelly breaks down the nervous adolescent girl (Heather Matarrazo) who brought the charges, and the guilty defendant walks.

Lomax's extraordinary record grabs the attention of a seemingly dignified New York legal factory—Milton, Chadwick, and Waters—with wealthy clients all across the globe. His mother (Judith Ivey), a fundamentalist Christian, warns him not to accept their offer.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon,” she says of the Big Apple. “It has become a dwelling place of demons.”

Lomax isn't a believer, and he describes his relationship to his moth-er's Church as being “on parole for time served.” He ignores her advice and heads off for the bright lights with his devoted, attractive wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron).

He should have listened to mom.

Head honcho John Milton (Al Pacino) takes Lomax under his wing and offers him and his wife a taste of the high life. A luxury apartment overlooking Central Park, a huge salary with plenty of perks, and invitations to chic parties for the rich and famous, all are part of the package. In return, Milton puts Lomax to the test.

The young attorney's first case seems too small for such a big-money firm. A practitioner of voodoo and animal slaughter is indicted on health code violations. Lomax gets his obviously guilty client off by shifting the grounds of the argument with a brilliant appeal to religious liberty and its attendant rights. By the end of the trial, the prosecutor has fallen sick, and it's implied he is suffering from a voodoo curse. Milton's special interest in the case alerts the audience that he is into some dark, satanic stuff, but Lomax and his wife suspect nothing.

The senior partner insists his protégé accompany him to wild parties without his wife. Lomax becomes attracted to one of the firm's partners (Connie Nielson). Almost as a reward, Milton throws him the firm's hottest case although the other partners advise against it.

A Donald Trump-like real-estate tycoon, Andrew Cullen (Craig T. Nelson), is accused of murdering his wife and two others. He's headlined in the tabloid press and assumed to be guilty. But, at the high-profile trial, Lomax gets him off, becoming a media celebrity in the process. However, the young hotshot has developed doubts about his client's innocence.

The long hours on the job and the par-tying with Milton has made him a stranger to his wife, and she is becoming edgy. As Lomax tries to work his way through these moral dilemmas, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and A Gentleman) and screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne) present the devil primarily as tempter. Despite his occasional dabbling in black magic he is not an all-powerful figure. Those who come under his influence are shown to have free will.

Lomax is always given the opportunity to turn away from the evil one's path. His devout mother comes to New York to visit, and when she observes her son's high-society lifestyle and his neglect of his wife, she begs him to return to their simpler, small-town roots. He refuses.

As his wife reaches the breaking point, the hard-charging lawyer rejects Milton's suggestion to scale back his workload. In both instances Lomax's ambition overrides all other concerns. The evil one posing as the senior partner has found his protégé's weakness and tempts him to give in to it.

God is derided as “a prankster” and “an absentee landlord” who “let us all down.” The devil believes he's on a roll, claiming “the 20th century was entirely mine.” He perceives narcissism as the dominant sentiment of the age.

“Vanity, that's my favorite sin,” he boasts.

Like the movie's earlier jibes at the legal profession, most of these philosophical musings don't lead anywhere. They have little relevance to the dramatic action. The filmmakers always go for maximum theatrical effect instead of intellectual consistency or moral truth, and they borrow heavily from previous blockbusters such as The Firm and Rosemary's Baby in tying up the loose ends.

Even at its worst though, the movie knows how to have fun. When Lomax finally chooses to assert his underdeveloped conscience, the devil tries to divert him by prancing around the room, lip-synching to Frank Sinatra's It Happened in Monterey. The Devil's Advocate may be trashy, but it's never dull.

John Prizer, the Register's arts and culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.