Friday November 21, 1997
Francis Ford Coppola writing and directing an adaptation of a John Grisham novel sounds like the creative mismatch of the decade. What's next, Maya Angelou reciting "Humpty Dumpty"? Wynton Marsalis doing an arrangement for "Three Blind Mice"?
Of course, when you think of it, Angelou and Marsalis would no doubt elevate our appreciation of those simple verses, and that's exactly what Coppola does with "John Grisham's The Rainmaker."
Though he's adapting the same story Grisham always tells, that of an ethical, talented and inexperienced attorney taking on and outwitting powerful and corrupt legal opponents, Coppola has infused "The Rainmaker" with enough humor, character, honest emotion and storytelling style to make it one of the year's most entertaining movies. And the filmmaker manages all this without doing radical surgery on the spine of the novel.
"The Rainmaker" follows recent law school grad Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) as he struggles to get his career off the ground in lawyer-infested Memphis with a pair of jobs that fell into his lap. One is handling the will of an elderly woman who wants to leave her imaginary fortune to a televangelist; the other is a lawsuit against an insurance company whose denial of a legitimate medical claim is costing a young man his life.
Coppola overcomes some of the episodic nature of the book by quickly doing away with the weak subplot about Miss Birdie's will. She's still around, played with delightful spiritedness by 79-year-old Teresa Wright, as Rudy's landlady, but the comic relief comes from her personality, not her predicament.
A second subplot, about Rudy's relationship with a young woman he attempts to rescue from her abusive husband, remains overplayed melodrama. But Claire Danes' strength as Kelly Riker, and the sincere chemistry between her and Damon, offset the cliche.
The main business of the plot is that insurance case, and it's a pip. A poor family--overworked mom Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), brain-damaged dad Buddy Black (Red West) and their dying son Donny Ray (John Whitworth)--are suing Great Benefit, a billion-dollar company that has denied their claim for Donny's bone-marrow transplant, calling it an uncovered experimental procedure.
It's a strong case for someone facing his first bar exam, and Rudy reluctantly turns it over to Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), the disreputable lawyer for whom he works briefly. When Bruiser disappears, after some pursuit by the feds, Rudy finds himself alone in the courtroom, arguing against a battery of high-priced corporate lawyers.
In the voice-over narration, written by Michael Herr, who provided the same service on Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," Rudy muses that his opponents probably have more than 100 years of experience between them, while his staff--the ambulance-chasing paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito)--has failed the bar exam six times.
These are odds Grisham likes. And so, apparently, does Coppola, who takes the opportunity to give corporate America and its legal bodyguards a scorching hotfoot. Great Benefit's dream team, led by the slick Leo Drummond (Jon Voight), is an immoral bunch, ready to defend its sleazy client with all means--legal and illegal--at its disposal. The team's bugging of Rudy's office and the countermeasures taken by Rudy and Deck lead to some hilarious consequences.
Humorless lawyers who think Hollywood has gone far enough in trashing their profession may not enjoy the additional beating they take here, and they will be right in saying that Coppola overstates the wretchedness of our legal system. But for the rest of us, it's great fun.
Coppola's casting is flawless. Damon, a talented young actor on the brink of stardom, gives Rudy just the right blend of innocence, determination and wariness. He makes a preposterous situation as plausible as it can be. DeVito is a riot as Deck Shifflet, a hard-working opportunist who can't pass a person in the hallway without producing a business card.
Voight is having a nice second career playing villains, and he's terrific as Drummond, a condescending Goliath being plumped for the courtroom kill by his unlikely opponent. Even Rourke, as the ironic shyster who keeps live sharks in his office, is fun to watch.
Other familiar faces belong to Dean Stockwell, playing the derelict judge who encourages Rudy to settle out of court for small change; Danny Glover, the pro-plaintiff judge who eventually tries the case; Roy Scheider, the skulking head of Great Benefit; and Virginia Madsen, as a fired claims agent who knows all the insurance company's dirty secrets.
It's hard to say Francis Ford Coppola's "John Grisham's The Rainmaker," but it's a pleasure to watch.
John Grisham's The Rainmaker, 1997. PG-13, for a strong beating and elements of domestic abuse. An American Zoetrope production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Francis Ford Coppola. Producers Michael Douglas, Steven Reuther, Fred Fuchs. Screenplay by Coppola, based on the novel by John Grisham. Cinematographer John Toll. Editor Barry Malkin. Costumes Addie Guerard Rodgers. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Howard Cummings. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor. Danny DeVito as Deck Shifflet. Claire Danes as Kelly Riker. Jon Voight as Leo F. Drummond. Mary Kay Place as Dot Black. Dean Stockwell as Judge Harvey Hale. Teresa Wright as Miss Birdie. Virginia Madsen as Jackie Lemancyzk. Mickey Rourke as Bruiser Stone. Andrew Shue as Cliff Riker.