Friday, June 20, 2014

The Rainmaker (1997)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola                        Writers: Francis Ford Coppola & Michael Herr
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                           Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito and Teresa Wright

After hitting it big with The Firm, author John Grisham slipped a little with books like The Pelican Brief and The Client. But when he really got back on track was with The Rainmaker. The novel was impressive enough that Francis Ford Coppola took an interest and decided to produce the film. And it’s a terrific story. Grisham was never a lawyer for any length of time and his best stories are about law students graduating and finding their way in the legal community before ultimately leaving the profession. It’s a storyline that parallels his own career. Once Grisham made the deal for The Firm, his second novel, he immediately quit. The film isn’t nearly as gripping as the novel because of the need to jettison much of the subplot involving the legal firms that the protagonist gets interviews with, as well as a far more in depth understanding of his landlord and his partner. But the parts that remain are well chosen. It also has an all-star cast and sports a magnificent blues-based score by Elmer Bernstein, all of which go together to make The Rainmaker a great film.

Matt Damon plays a Memphis law student who has just graduated. He has a difficult time finding a job and winds up going to work for Mickey Rourke, the mob lawyer of the owner of the bar where he works. There he meets a fellow ambulance chaser Danny DeVito who shows him the ropes, part of which includes haunting the hospital for possible clients. But Damon has two clients already that he met while doing a law seminar. One is Mary Kay Place, the mother of Johnny Whitworth who has leukemia and the insurance company won’t pay. Teresa Wright is his other client, an old woman who wants to cut her children out of her will. While Damon is studying for the bar exam at the hospital--Rourke wants him there so he can sign up clients--he meets Claire Danes, a young girl who is being physically abused by her psychotic husband, Andrew Shue. It’s a convoluted plot with the four elements weaving together simultaneously, his job, his relationship with Danes, the leukemia case, and the will for Wright, with whom he’s also living above her garage. But it all fits together well and is easy to follow.

It’s the typical David vs. Goliath story and it’s also very inspirational. Damon is the rookie who has to rely on a bunch of luck going up against the insurance company lawyer Jon Voight. In addition to DeVito he’s also helped by a sympathetic judge Danny Glover and star witness Virginia Madsen. Mary Kay Place is terrific as the white trash mother whose son is dying, and Mickey Rourke is impressive as the mob lawyer, his last major role before he dropped out of major motion pictures and reemerged in The Wrestler. Also rediscovered in this film was Virginia Madsen, who had been relegated to B movies prior to this. The film paved the way for her reemergence in Andrew Payne’s Sideways a few years later. Danny DeVito is a riot as the “para-lawyer” who hasn’t passed the bar exam in six tries. But then the part was really written that way in the book, and it was inspired casting by Coppola. The other ringers in the cast are Dean Stockwell as a cantankerous judge, country music star Randy Travis as a juror, and the great Roy Scheider as the insurance company CEO.

Only Francis Ford Coppola could command that kind of star power, with many of these actors willing to work in what is essentially an ensemble cast, with only Matt Damon the real star in the picture. John Grisham called the film the best adaptation of any of his books, which is something considering how good The Firm was. In monetary terms, though, the film didn’t make back as much money as the studio had hoped, earning only about five million over budget. But this makes sense. Where The Firm was a heart pounding thriller with an incredible chase scene at the end of the film, this picture is a courtroom drama with the only real threat of death coming from Danes’ psychotic and abusive husband, Andrew Shue, as she and Damon try to get her things out of their apartment. But that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. The Rainmaker is a terrific story and a fantastic film, a must for devotees of courtroom drama and essential for Grisham fans.

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