Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THE RAINMAKER (1997) *** 1/2

Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by John Grisham Narration written by Michael Herr. Photography, John Toll. Editing, Barry Malkin. Production design, Howard Cummings. Music, Elmer Bernstein. Producers: Michael Douglas, Steven Reuther, Fred Fuchs. Cast: Matt Damon (Rudy Baylor), Danny DeVito (Deck Schifflet), Claire Danes (Kelly Riker), Jon Voight (Leo F. Drummond), Mary Kay Place (Dot Black), Teresa Wright (Miss Birdie), Virginia Madsen (Jackie Lemancyzk), Mickey Rourke (Bruiser Stone), Roy Scheider (Wilfred Keeley), Dean Stockwell (Judge Hale ), Red West (Buddy Black), Randy Travis (Billy Porter), Johnny Whitworth (Donny Ray Black), Danny Glover (Judge Tyrone Kipler) Andrew Shue (Cliff Riker), et al. A Paramount release. 137 min. PG-13.
John Grisham is a best-selling novelist and, to borrow from film language, an "auteur" in the narrow sense, as he specializes in one genre (legal yarns) the way X does in horror or Y in romance. But he is no writer. His prose lacks style and nuances, his characters have to struggle to reach two dimensions.

He was lucky to have Francis Coppola write and direct "The Rainmaker." Coppola's script cuts out many of the repetitions and subplots of the book, streamlines, smoothes it without oversimplifying it, improves it significantly.

The film comes at the heels of another lawyer movie, "The Devil's Advocate" in which lawyers are devils and vice versa --literally. It is done in silly ways that use the supernatural as a facile alibi. "The Rainmaker" sticks to much more convincing and affecting realism.

Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, who worked his way through a lesser law school, finished and found a job in Memphis with a sleazy lawyer with underworld contacts, Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke). Bruiser's office is in character, with a minimal law Library but a tank of sharks.

Flat broke Rudy, evicted from his apartment, using his jalopy as home, must do his tasks for Bruise yet also study for his bar exams, which he does in a bar owned by Bruise (a good verbal gag) and later in the cafeteria of a hospital.

Usually, Rourke's presence guarantees a picture's worthlessness, but here he is beautifully cast. His legman-assistant is Deck Schiffler (Danny DeVito), ex-salesman, law graduate, record holder in failing the bar exams --six times. An ambulance-chasing con-man par excellence, he is amoral rather than immoral. Matters of conscience as as alien to him as a bottle of Chateau Latour would be to a Dr. Pepper drinker. He is even oddly likable and very, very funny.

Rudy may sound like an idealist by lawyeresque standards, yet he is simply a decent youth with respect for the law and warmth for fellow humans. His duties send him to one main case, that of the Black family, humble people whose son is dying from leukemia because the huge insurance firm Great Benefit has refused coverage and claims, not once but eight times.

Rudy passes the bar exams, Bruiser disappears when the Feds get after him, Rudy and "paralegal" Deck form a threadbare partnership. The two nothings take on the insurance giant and its phalanx of platinum-plated lawyers led by the remorseless, semi-oily, clever, experienced, influential Leo Drummond, whom Jon Voight plays to the nasty hilt but without cliched caricaturing.

The film's core is the battle royal between David Rudy and Goliath Great Benefit. I will not give away the twists , turns , twists within turns of the fight's strategies, a far cry from a mere Biblical slingshot. I could not reveal the plot in any case, as it is convoluted and requires a viewer's concentration. Its essence is a powerful expose of enormous scams of the kinds that are all around us. Rudy turns into an investigative sleuth ,a muckracker (a splendid word, often misunderstood) akin to those who have made "60 Minutes" on CBS the most facinating and needed program of its kind.

DeVito is terrific as he both lightens and advances the film with comic relief. Coppola had lightened the structure of the plot with his cuts. Yet he still retained the character of Kelly (Claire Danes), a horribly and regularly beaten up woman --by a beast of a "loving" yet deranged husband. She and Rudy meet at the hospital cafeteria where he retreats to study. You guesse the rest. But as the de developments in Kelly's case are quite complex, the film can only sketch them out. I think it might have survived more smoothly had this "de rigeur" Hollywoodian boy-meets-girl entirely excised.

Lone Rudy,innocent in the ways of lawyering, forms personal attachments with his cases. This is less of a problem with Miss Birdie, a charmingly pixillated old lady (Teresa Wright, 25 and unforgettable in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt," 79 now). She wants to cut out her relatives from her will and leave everything to a TV preacher, a phony, we surmise Rudy gently retorts that the man is well provided for. She replies that he has much overhead and besides "his jet is getting old." When Miss Birdie's sleazy son and wife come from Florida, he sells them the story that the Miss Birdie is wealthy. Pronto, they switch from despising her to fawning.

So much of the film is under the sign of sleaze. The first judge we meet (played by Dean Stockwell) is sleazy in his way. So are the elegant "suits,"the lawyers, and the insurance company's casually chic CEO (Roy Scheider). But the women are not --and this comes organically, naturally, not as a sop to feminism.

All the actors are perfectly cast and give marvelously good performances -both Coppola hallmarks. Among the thespians: Red West (the desperate, alcoholic father of the dying young man), Mary Kay Place (the mother), Johnny Whitworth (their son), Virginia Madsen(a witness), etc. Danny Glover, the new judge, comes from a civil rights, pro-underdog background. He has natural elegance, a discreet yet formidable presence, a faint but clear twinkle in his eyes, and the talent to skew some issues gently when he judges them to serve justice best.

The players would not have been so good without Coppola's guidance. The bashing of corporate America and its minions does not have to be heavily underlined. The mere presence of humane, morally clean young Rudy does it. By opposing the lawyer-sharks, Rudy is not so much a knight in shining armor as he is the decent exception that confirms the rule.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel