John Grisham's novels are like flypaper: insubstantial but entangling. Not noted for characterization or style, their shark-like sense of unstoppable narrative drive practically forces the reader to keep turning those pages. That is a nice talent to have in a nation that does much of its reading on airplanes.
Because the originals are so insubstantial, the film versions of Grisham's books are more porous than most adaptations, prone to absorbing the aesthetic coloration of the people who direct them. "The Firm" was better for the care Sydney Pollack took with acting and characterization; "The Pelican Brief" got bogged down in Alan Pakula's oblique moroseness, and now "The Client" comes to us with the mark of Joel Schumacher on it.
Though his name is not yet on the short list for AFI's Life Achievement Award, Schumacher is in many ways a good match for Grisham material. The director of "Falling Down," "Dying Young" and "Flatliners," Schumacher is an unapologetically commercial filmmaker (as his next assignment on studio franchise "Batman III" underlines) and he is excited about the material in a way a more ethereal type wouldn't be.
The combination of Schumacher's on-the-nose eye for mass public appeal with Grisham's best-selling sensibility has produced a film that is probably truer to the spirit of the original novels than were its predecessors. Not particularly nuanced or fine-tuned, "The Client," like its source material, is both gimmicky and involving, a fast-moving comic-book version of a comic-book novel.
And while Schumacher has not been known as an actor's director, "The Client" is beefed up by a pair of satisfying star performances. Both on their own and in their scenes together, Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones are often more convincing than the film's story line, and the energy of their acting helps "The Client's" plot over a variety of rough spots.
Initially, however, neither Sarandon nor Jones are anywhere in sight. Instead, on a hot Memphis afternoon, two boys, 11-year-old Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his 8-year-old brother, Ricky (David Speck), go on the lam from their low-rent trailer-park home with a cigarette they've stolen from their working mother (a believable Mary-Louise Parker).
All kids have secret spots they favor, places they go to savor their triumphs, but on this particular day Mark and Ricky have their space in the woods invaded by a large, late-model car. Inside is a distraught Mafia lawyer from New Orleans named Romey Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), suicidal and prone to talking too much. Before long, Romey has told Mark things it could be worth his life to know.
And, not surprisingly, it doesn't take much time for interested parties both good and bad to focus in on little Mark. On the dark side, Barry "The Blade" Muldano (Anthony LaPaglia) and his cohorts would like to ensure the boy's silence, while ambitious, milk-drinking federal prosecutor Roy Foltrigg (Jones), called Reverend because he "knows Scripture better than the Lord," would scruple at nothing to get him to talk.
Though Mark is feisty to the point of obnoxiousness, even he knows he's overmatched. And since this is one of those movies where emotionally troubled, bargain-basement lawyers just happen to be the equal of the best legal talent anywhere, Mark manages to stumble on just such a diamond-in-the-rough in Reggie Love.
As played by Sarandon (and helped by the dialogue in the Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell script), Reggie is the emotional center of "The Client," a protective tornado who wants to do the best for bratty Mark for both personal and professional reasons. Her interchanges with the Reverend Roy, as cool as she is hot and expertly played by Jones, are the best "The Client" has to offer.
Though it never bores and creditably moves through all its paces, "The Client" on film plays like a series of predictable set-ups painted with too broad a brush. Yet such is the power of Grisham's narrative that even though much of what is seen isn't particularly convincing, it doesn't stop us from caring how it all turns out. Let other films worry about the fine points; "The Client" just wants to keep you turning the page.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for "a child in jeopardy, brief language." Times guidelines: It includes an attempted and a successful suicide.
Susan Sarandon: Reggie Love
Tommy Lee Jones: Roy Foltrigg
Mary-Louise Parker: Dianne Sway
Anthony LaPaglia: Barry Muldano
J. T. Walsh: McThune
Anthony Edwards: Clint Von Hooser
Brad Renfro: Mark Sway
An Arnon Milchan production, in association with Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Arnon Milchan, Steven Reuther. Screenplay Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell, based on the novel by John Grisham. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editor Robert Brown. Costumes Ingrid Ferrin. Music Howard Shore. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Art director P. Michael Johnston. Set decorator Anne D. McCulley. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.