Review: The Rainmaker

Matt Damon is Rudy, a young Tennessee lawyer just recently out of Law School and currently financially struggling and sleeping in his car. He gets hired by a shonky, small Law practice run by the extremely dubious ‘Bruiser’ (Mickey Rourke, beginning his slow and sadly rather brief comeback), and where most of the work is done by Deck (Danny DeVito- ingratiatingly unscrupulous), a paralegal who hasn’t even passed the bar exam, despite multiple attempts (Rudy is currently studying for it himself). What the crafty Deck lacks in say, a licence, he makes up for in knowing all the tricks of the (slimy) trade. Whilst ‘Bruiser’ (whose last name isn’t Shyster, but might as well be) quickly flies to some kind of escape island from the feds, Deck and Rudy decide it’s probably best if they open their own little office. Whilst Deck is content to make the rounds at hospitals to pick up clients, Rudy has a few clients to start on; There’s Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright), the sweet but stubborn old lady who wants to leave all her money in her will to a televangelist. Miss Birdie also offers Rudy boarding on the cheap if he does a few household chores for her. There’s also battered wife Kelly (Claire Danes), fearful of her abusive baseball-loving husband Andrew Shue (cast against type). But the biggest case involves young Johnny Whitworth as a dying leukaemia sufferer refused crucial bone marrow treatment by the nasty big insurance firm, whom his parents Mary Kay Place and Red West are suing. Meanwhile, the bond between Rudy and Kelly (whom Deck sends Rudy to the hospital to try and sign her up) strengthens, with Rudy having to seriously violate some of his ethics to protect her from loutish Shue. Jon Voight plays the insurance firm’s smug lawyer who thinks Rudy is going to be a pushover in his first play in the big leagues. Danny Glover and Dean Stockwell play judges of differing moral compasses, whilst Virginia Madsen is a key witness (and former company employee), Country singer Randy Travis is an excitable juror (in the film’s funniest scene), and Roy Scheider turns up as the cold-hearted company CEO.

I love a good courtroom movie, with “12 Angry Men” and “A Few Good Men” being among my favourite films of all-time. This Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”, “The Godfather Part II”, “The Outsiders”) adaptation of the John Grisham (“The Client”, “A Time to Kill”, “Runaway Jury”) best-seller isn’t on that same level, but it’s not too far off, joining the likes of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (the film, not the classic novel it’s based on) and the entertaining “Runaway Jury” in a very fine second tier. With a screenplay by the director himself, it’s terrific entertainment and one of Coppola’s best films to date (I’m not a Coppola fan, mind you).

As the fresh-out-of-Law-School Rudy, Matt Damon is both completely believable and immensely likeable in the lead role of this ‘underdog trying to win through seemingly insurmountable odds’ story. He’s a terrifically underrated actor, and is backed up by a terrific (and large) supporting cast of fine actors in memorable character parts, which serve as the best thing about the film- the people who populate the story. Especially impressive is the perfectly cast Danny DeVito, who deserved an Oscar nomination, in one of his best-ever roles as a literal ‘ambulance chaser’ who has failed several times to pass the bar exam. He’s the kind of lawyer who works for a guy named ‘Bruiser’ and waltzes into hospitals to recruit clients. Yet DeVito somehow makes the character loveable, possibly because he’s not only small in stature but lowly in his standing in the legal community too. Also standing out is a pompous Jon Voight as the big-time corporate lawyer out to devour this pissant little upstart. Yes, it’s latter-day Voight doing latter-day Voight, but this is probably my favourite example of it. Look out for former Elvis associate Red West, who in a tricky part gets one genuinely moving scene with Damon that you won’t forget. Also excellent are the aforementioned and slickly-dressed Rourke, and an all-too rare appearance by Hollywood veteran of the Golden Age, Teresa Wright, one of my all-time favourites. Her role isn’t big, but she’s an American treasure and I bet Coppola loved having her in his film. A multiple Best Supporting Actress nominee early in her career (she was nominated for her first three roles on screen and won for her second, “Mrs. Miniver”), she’s as lovely and charming as ever in her last film role. Nifty cameos by Glover, Travis (hilarious in a scene of ‘jury tampering’ that actually isn’t tampering), Madsen (sadly one of only two really good roles she’s had since the 80s, along with 2004’s “Sideways”), and the always underrated Scheider, too.

The subplot involving Damon’s involvement with battered wife Danes stretches credibility at times (and Andrew Shue is laughably miscast), but I understand why it’s there and you do see why Damon’s Rudy takes an interest. Danes is sweet and vulnerable, but the film could use a trim and it’s not a terribly necessary plot element. The film takes a bit too long to enter the courtroom and it is indeed a slight problem. That aside, this is otherwise riveting stuff, with a great sense of humour, too. It’s especially amusing to watch Voight’s increasingly enraged face as Rudy continues to score points. This is seemingly also to the delight of Glover’s judge who despite being fair-minded, can see the uphill battle Damon faces, and has little patience for the smug Voight.

This is just plain good Hollywood fun from a surprisingly unpretentious Coppola. It’s a well-shot film, but for once Coppola mostly just lets the interesting story tell itself. Despite my complaining that the film is a bit long, Coppola does deserve credit for managing to pare down Grisham’s text niftily by adding a voice-over at the beginning that introduces us to the main character a lot quicker than a slavish retelling of the novel would have. It was apparently a late addition, and an excellent idea. If you see one Coppola film in your lifetime, well I’d watch “The Godfather Part II” (if not both that and “The Godfather”), but you can’t go much wrong with this one, either. In fact, it might actually be more fun than those two gangster epics. It’s so good that you’re too entertained to even care that the conclusion is never really in doubt. The plot elements aren’t always original or unsurprising, but an excellent cast and characters and a fine sense of humour prevail. Definitely the best John Grisham-derived film to date, by far.

Rating: B+


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