As carefully constructed, handsomely crafted and flavorsomely acted as a top-of-the-line production from Hollywood’s classical studio era, Francis Ford Coppola’s screen version of “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” would seem to represent just about all a filmmaker could do with the best-selling author’s patented dramatic formulas without subverting them altogether. Although highly predictable in the wake of five previous adaptations of the writer’s novels (and the first in which his name is included, Jacqueline Susann- or Sidney Sheldon-style, in the actual title), this story of a young Southern lawyer taking on an evil insurance giant exerts an almost irresistible David and Goliath appeal, and proves absorbing from beginning to end. Paramount release looms as a highly durable B.O. entry.
Authoring a script on his own for the first time in a very long while, Coppola has adhered to the essential dramatic crescendos important to any Grisham tale, climaxing inevitably in a major courtroom scene in which the little (and young and attractive) guy takes on the establishment or big money or simply long odds. But while not exactly making the material his own, the writer-director has taken his film right up to the edge of undercutting his source without actually doing so, investing it with delightful humor at every possible moment, steering away from the more overt melodramatic elements, and injecting it with a booster shot of cynicism and unmistakable disenchantment with the legal system.
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A quick and tumultuous journey from idealism to jadedness is taken by Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a Memphis law school grad who, looking for any experience he can get, goes to work for the aptly named Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), a slimy operator who dresses like a pimp and has never met a scam he didn’t like. From Bruiser’s shameless leg man Deck Schifflet (Danny DeVito), Rudy learns the basics of ambulance-chasing, which is how he meets Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a young woman hospitalized after having been pummeled by her husband with a baseball bat.
Rudy has also generated two potentially promising clients on his own, Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright), an appropriately flighty old woman who may or may not have a large estate to dispose of, and Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), whose son Donny Ray (Johnny Whitworth) is dying of leukemia. The former pans out only to the extent that the penniless Rudy takes up lodgings in back of Birdie’s house, while the Blacks seemingly have the making of a real case; the poor family’s insurance company, Great Benefit, has flatly rejected all eight attempts made to secure coverage for Donny Ray’s care.
Breaking away from Bruiser just as the Feds close in on him, Rudy and Deck, who has never managed to pass the bar exam, set up their own makeshift firm, placing all their bets on the Blacks. At the slightest threat of being taken to court, Great Benefit’s slick lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight) offers to settle for $75,000. But the team decides to push ahead with what shortly becomes a wrongful death suit when Donny Ray dies.
Playing on the audience’s undoubted pleasure in seeing an arrogant and unfeeling corporation being brought down to size, pic methodically presents the clever and lucky ways in which Rudy and Deck peel away the layers of deceit until the venal core of Great Benefit’s business practices is laid bare for all to see. This partly involves some off-hour stealth and sleuthing, such as playing a trick on Drummond when they discover that he’s bugged their phone, but mostly unfolds in the courtroom drama that extends, with numerous interruptions, through the entire second half of the film.
Alternate focus lands upon Kelly, a working-class girl whose teenage marriage has turned into a nightmare of beatings and threats. Rudy’s own (and a mite convenient) history of abuse at the hands of his father draws him to the almost always bruised and battered young woman, who is rightly afraid that her husband will kill her if she tries to leave or divorce him. Rudy’s attempts to intervene in this domestic battle have irreversible consequences, and the expected romance between the two kids is so underplayed that it never materializes, a gratifyingly realistic approach under the traumatic circumstances.
While Coppola is clearly inspired by the underdog legal team, his ambivalent, philosophical, somewhat jaundiced view of the way of the world restrains him from souping up the picture with manufactured frenzy and hysteria, as some Grisham adaptations have done. Pic doesn’t go quite as far as saying that all human endeavor is for naught, but its deep sense of disillusion about the legal and business system, conveyed most pointedly in Michael Herr’s articulate, sometimes too on-the-nose v.o. narration for Rudy, drifts noticeably in that direction, and concludes the picture on a note of what is best described as upbeat melancholy.
Much of the film’s positive mood stems from its unexpected high humor. Coppola has never been particularly known for his comic touch, but here he seems bent on leavening the melodrama with as many laughs as possible, and they are generally honest and well-earned. Much of the amusement comes from DeVito, who tackles his professionally disreputable but personally winning character with his customary relish. Sancho Panza to Rudy’s Don Quixote, Deck Schifflet is a classic character role, and DeVito shines in it.
Towering over his cohort, Matt Damon adroitly shades Rudy’s transformation from greenhorn to legal superstar, never overdoing his character’s sensitivity or momentary triumphs. Voight makes for a super-smooth villain — in the movie’s terms, nothing could be worse than someone who represents both big law firms and the insurance industry. Danes is appealing and capable as the beseiged woman, but is hardly tested by the role.
Supporting cast is rich and deep. Mary Kay Place and Teresa Wright bring to life two quite different isolated women. Mickey Rourke oozes sleaze in his most effective screen appearance in ages, and Dean Stockwell gets a few yocks as an old boys’ circuit judge. Most startling and scene-stealing turn comes from Virginia Madsen, who makes the most of her part as a cast-off Great Benefit employee who bravely spills the beans in court about her former bosses. Curiously, Danny Glover goes unbilled in the prominent part of the trial judge.
Production values are immaculate. Memphis locations in autumn create a resplendently somber feel that is echoed in Howard Cummings’ production design and John Toll’s textured widescreen lensing. Barry Malkin’s editing moves things along at a determined but not exaggerated clip, and Elmer Bernstein’s score chimes in with some lively and unexpected sounds.