Well, heres a novelty: a movie thats simply about whats right
and whats wrong. In Francis Ford Coppolas adaptation of John
Grishams novel The Rainmaker, theres no sex, no car chases,
no violence (except for one beautifully staged fight scene). Nothing,
in short, to detract from the storys focus on a lawyer who tries,
against all odds, to maintain the moral high ground.
Matt Damon, in a surprisingly nuanced performance, plays fledgling
attorney Rudy Baylor, a modest, polite-spoken young man who has
barely graduated from Memphis State when he lands a whopper
of a case: a family wants to sue the Great Benefit insurance company
for denying a bone-marrow transplant to their leukemia-stricken
son. Penniless himself, he takes a job with sleazy lawyer Bruiser
Stone (Mickey Rourke), whose office is next to a topless club
(Dannys, which is not disguised for the movie). Rudy is homeless,
too, so he rents a carriage house on the property of flighty Midtown
widow Miss Birdie (79-year-old Teresa Wright), who turns him into
her yard boy.
Rudy takes everything thats thrown at him and doesnt complain.
He seems too good to be true. He also seems more than a little
wet behind the ears, but we know from his sardonic voiceovers
that hes aware of the absurdity of his situation; he just doesnt
yet have the power to control his own destiny.
With prodding from paralawyer Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito),
Rudy goes into business for himself and sets about confronting
Great Benefits army of lawyers. When he faces them all across
a boardroom table, it truly is a David-and-Goliath scenario, and
the kid scores with a verbal slingshot. His nemesis is the insurance
companys chief lawyer Leo Drummond, played with arrogant self-righteousness
by Jon Voight. Slick and superior, Drummond can scarcely contain
his mirth at Rudys ignorance of courtroom procedure. But through
some not-quite-illegal maneuvering, Deck and Rudy manage to expose
a weakness in the insurance companys armor.
In the midst of all this, theres a parallel story in which Rudy
plays the gallant hero, rescuing a damsel in distress. He meets
Kelly Riker (Claire Danes, who doesnt have much to do except
look hurt), a young woman who has been repeatedly beaten by her
husband but who is afraid to leave because hes threatened to
kill her. Instinctively Rudy wants to protect her, and theirs
is a sweet little tale of blossoming love, with Rudy as the pure-hearted
savior. Its tangential to the main plot, yet directly connected
to the movies theme: Theres right and theres wrong. Domestic
violence is wrong, and Rudy wont stand for it. (The movie might
be a bit more interesting if Rudy were ever tempted to the dark
side, but on the other hand, its refreshing to see someone so
steadfast in his principles.)
This all sounds pretty heavy-handed, but it doesnt play that
way. This is by far the funniest Grisham movie ever, thanks in
large part to DeVitos indefatigable antics (as Deck, the unrepentant
ambulance-chaser whos failed the bar exam six times, he hands
out business cards to anyone with visible evidence of injury).
And Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, inserts a number of
witticisms into the script.
As director, Coppola pulls excellent performances from all of
his cast members. In contrast to most Grisham adaptations, which
are full of stereotyped characters and outlandish plot devices,
Coppola makes this one a human story a collection of quiet moments
between people who seem true to life.
For example, Red West, as the brain-addled (hes got a plate
in his head and he aint right) father of the leukemia patient,
could have played his mental deficit for laughs. Instead, he creates
what may be the most emotionally powerful moment in the whole
film, and he never says a word.
Coppolas sharp judgment in picking actors extends to his choice
of production staff as well. His director of photography is John
Toll (Oscar winner for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), who
depicts Memphis honestly without glamorizing it (as The Firm tended
to do). Memphians will easily recognize many of the sites, from
Court Square and the Pinch district to The Med and the Shelby
County Courthouse. (And the Las Savell jewelry store gets priceless
But with Coppolas insistence on using real locations, its puzzling
why the film refers to the University of Memphis by its old name.
Grisham set the novel before the universitys name change took
place, but since the film moves the action up to 1996, Memphis
State is an anachronism.
The other thing that elicits groans from local moviegoers is the
reference to Union Street. With all the Memphians who were involved
with the production, youd think somebody would have caught this
egregious flub. And The Rainmaker, despite its visual authenticity,
resembles every other Grisham film in one respect: Its characters
speak with syrupy, Hollywoodized Southern accents. Ive been here
all my life and dont talk that way, nor does anyone else I know.
Why didnt the dialogue coach listen to some actual Memphians?
Nitpicking aside, The Rainmaker is an enjoyable, well-made movie
thats worth a couple hours of your time. Its no masterpiece,
but hey its based on a Grisham book. Get real.
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