' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Rainmaker

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Some Drivel On...The Rainmaker

The official title of “The Rainmaker” (1997) is not, in fact, “The Rainmaker”, a la “The Firm” and “The Client”, but “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker”, giving prominent position to the author of the book on which the film was based. In one way, that seems right. I admit I was seeking out “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” 22 long years after the fact because these days I crave middlebrow Grisham trash like I crave few other cinematic offerings. In another way, though, that seems strange, if not wrong. “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” was not helmed by, like, journeyman Gary Fleder, who directed an adaptation of Grisham’s “Runaway Jury”, but a legend of New Hollywood – Francis Ford Coppola. But, 1997 was an odd time for the auteur. It was two decades after he released the masterworks that made him legendary, and one decade after his professional work had, fair or not, kind of combusted, and a decade before he chose to independently finance his own odd projects, like “Twixt”, a kind of late-career return to film school, which I say with love. “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker”, though, was the in-between, which is why the full title is so noteworthy; Coppola, Francis Ford, was a hired hand.

The story itself is, of course, vintage Grisham, a young idealistic buck, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), fresh out of law school and forced to take a job chasing ambulances before finding himself as the underdog lead attorney arguing a case against vile Big Insurance for a family whose son has died from leukemia. Damon does a solid job of threading the needle between over-his-head newbie and smarter-than-he-looks savant, downplaying amidst an impressive cast of semi-showy vets, most of whom inhabit the sleazier side of things. Indeed, we meet Rudy’s new boss, Bruiser Stone, played by an agreeably unctuous Mickey Rourke, as he fiddles with his cufflinks and holds court before a tropical fish tank, and Bruiser’s number two and Rudy’s mentor, of sorts, Deck Shifflin (Danny DeVito), wearing a properly rumpled suit and clutching a Chinese takeout box, two introductions demonstrating the movie’s propensity for having a low-key good time.

Coppola’s editors, Melissa Kent and Barry Malkin, are in no rush, honoring Coppola’s wide frames, which are not so much about taking in massive landscapes as giving plenty of room to his talented cast spread out in private offices or court chambers and go. It’s fun just to see the camera linger over the reactions of Jon Voight, as Big Insurance’s insouciant attack dog, react to his increasingly problematic predicament, or Danny Glover playing the trial Judge as a sort of driver’s ed teacher steering Rudy with one foot on the passenger’s brake while keeping Voight’s smug big shot under control. Then again, you might wish Claire Danes had more to do than sit around and suffer as a battered wife. Her subplot is less about her falling in love with Rudy, though that kinda happens, then illuminating Rudy’s humanist streak, which is sometimes at odds with the more unsavory methods employed by Bruiser and, especially, Deck.

Honestly, Coppola seems more interested in Deck as a character, in the ethical tension between him liberally bending the rules and bending them to help the good guys win, and how a guy who can’t pass the bar still knows how to throw a legal punch. In fact, while I don’t wish to rewrite “The Rainmaker”, I was a little disappointed the scene where Deck masquerades as a trial lawyer didn’t last longer. Then again, even if the Big Case, and Rudy’s Big Speech, can’t shed its tear-jerking nature, Coppola sees it less through a heroic light than a bittersweet one, underlined in Rudy’s narration where he expresses a love for the law and a contempt for how the game is played, which is why he ends the movie by getting out of it. You wonder if Coppola took that as career advice.

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