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The Rainmaker is Francis Ford Coppola on cruise control. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie. As a matter of fact it's a good movie, but it's not exactly what we have come to expect from Coppola, the director of The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. But more and more, Coppola has become a director-for-hire. His last movie, Jack (starring Robin Williams), bore his name, but it was an anonymous creation (and a major box-office flop).
Now, he's on surer ground, with a John Grisham novel--surefire box-office boffo, in the tradition of The Firm, The Client, and The Pelican Brief. And indeed Coppola delivers one of the best movies yet based on a Grisham novel. The story itself is hard to resist: a young lawyer named Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), just out of law school and still in the process of studying for the bar exam, takes on a case that pits him against an insurance company and their team of well-paid attorneys (led by Jon Voight). The insurance company, Great Benefits, denied the claim of Rudy's client, a young man suffering from leukemia. As a result, without medical treatment, the young man's condition worsens each day, while his impoverished family can do nothing but watch as he gradually weakens and the denial notices from the insurance company pile up.
This David vs. Goliath story is fun to watch, but then when isn't it fun to see corporate lawyers and rich CEOs taken down a peg or two? Coppola crafts the story (he also wrote the screenplay) so that there are few surprises in the courtroom. He gives us a trial where the verdict is already a foregone conclusion--especially after a new judge (played by Danny Glover) is assigned to the case. Even without much suspense in the courtroom, it's still fun to watch the corporate lawyers squirm as Rudy and his assistant, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), refuse to buckle to the pressure. Even the movie's 30-second trailers commit an unpardonable sin by revealing one of the movie's great revelations--a surprise witness for the prosecution. With little suspense in the story itself, Coppola instead gives us a fine group of supporting characters: Danny DeVito plays a legal assistant who literally prowls hospital hallways, looking for new clients. At one point he even sticks a pen in the hand of a patient in traction and moves the contract around in order to get the patient's signature! DeVito gives us an exasperated, cynical character, but he also gives us a character who relishes the opportunity to help stick it to a corporate giant and that makes us like him, in spite of his less than ethical business practices. It's the best performance of DeVito's career and his best chance yet at an Academy Award nomination. We also get Jon Voight as Great Benefit's head lawyer and he's elegant and despicable. Mary Kay Place and Red West play the parents of the young man dying of leukemia. Mickey Rourke is flamboyant and sleazy as Bruiser Stone, an attorney with interests in topless bars, who gives Rudy his first job--chasing ambulances with Deck Shifflet (DeVito). Danny Glover plays the civil rights lawyer recently appointed as judge to the Great Benefits case. Virginia Madsen plays Jackie Lemanczyk, the key witness for the prosection. Dean Stockwell plays the first judge assigned to the case. His disdain for Rudy immediately puts the case in question. Teresa Wright--an underrated actress who appeared in such classics as The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1942), Shadow of a Doubt, and The Best Years of Our Lives--also stars as Miss Birdie, Rudy's landlady. And Roy Scheider is so calculatedly gentle and softspoken as the CEO of Great Benefit that he becomes insidious and dangerous. This great cast of characters helps buoy the drama even when the story itself is supplying few surprises.
To give the drama some needed suspense, Coppola also gives us a few doses of a subplot that involves a young woman, Kelly Riker (Claire Danes of My So-Called Life), and her abusive, violent husband (Andrew Shue of Melrose Place), but this sub-plot is mechanical and contrived. It exists mainly to give the movie some love interest: as Rudy tries to protect Kelly, he ultimately falls in love with her.
Throughout the movie, Coppola supplies pleasant but unsurprising, by-the-numbers filmmaking. Nothing risked. Nothing gained. But The Rainmaker is such pleasant, good-natured filmmaking that you probably won't mind. It's solid commercial filmmaking from Coppola--at a time when his career could use a little boost. With any luck, it will earn Coppola enough financial clout in Hollywood that he can work on a more personal and ambitious project.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]