' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Emerald Drivel On...Runaway Jury

Friday, October 20, 2023

Some Emerald Drivel On...Runaway Jury

Released this week in October 2003, “Runaway Jury” was the last John Grisham legal thriller adapted for the big screen. Recent laments regarding the demise of the subgenre tend to blame the comic book monolith. That, however, was a good way off in 2003, and I wonder if just a few months after America had been lied into a forever war through false evidence and trumped-up testimony, we were all weary of what The New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell dismissed as Grisham’s “tired morality.” Yet, while that plagued the author’s work, as did a lack of “guts for real debate,” to quote Peter Travers’s own withering assessment of the same movie, Grisham movies were made in the image of all that sweat Joel Schumacher deployed in “A Time to Kill,” not serious drama but pulp. And it’s why “Runaway Jury” always played to me not merely like a conclusion of the subgenre but a culmination. Director Gary Fleder might well have been a hack, as Salon’s Charles Taylor pooh-poohed him, but I’m not sure who else you’d want at the wheel of this movie then a craftsperson. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe deemed “Runaway Jury” the cinematic equivalent of a beach novel, though I prefer the term Barcalounger cinema, to borrow a word of movie’s, made to wash over you from the comfort of a recliner, the ultimate modern middling thriller.

The set-up to “Runaway Jury,” as Manohla Dargis wrote for the LA Times, is a “fiendishly smart way to stack the decks,” not so much introducing us to Dylan McDermott’s stockbroker as allowing us to bask in his angelic presence so that when he is killed in a mass shooting, it comes across as the ultimate sin, the accompanying videos of his child’s birthday party rendering Fleder as something akin to the movie’s prosecuting attorney. In fact, we never see this stockbroker’s widow (Joanna Going) without her own attorney present, which is to say in the same scene with her, evoking how we are never allowed to know who she is even as she files suit against the fictional gun manufacturer responsible for the weapon in her husband’s death. No, given that the book is about cigarettes and the movie about guns, it only underlines how the subject itself is less the point than the idea of a jury trial in the first place, “the perils,” writes Dargis, “of leaving the law in the hands of the people,” epitomized in Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a jury consultant brought in by the defense to rig the tribunal in their client’s favor.

Fitch is first seen in the back of a taxi in a series of tightly cropped shots that don’t let us get a good look at him, as if he’s an apparition, and eventually standing before a big bank of monitors, Beelzebub as Big Brother and able to summon each prospective juror’s entire personal history with a virtual snap of his fingers. He reduces all his ostensible peers to stereotypes just as the movie inadvertently (brilliantly?) does too, leaning on people like Nora Dunn, Luis Guzmán, Bill Nunn, Rusty Schwimmer, and Jennifer Beals to represent themselves. The wildcard jury member proves to be Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) who in tandem with his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) claim they can swing the verdict toward either Fitch and the defense or the prosecuting attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), whoever pays them more, though this extortion masks deeper ulterior motives both personal and political.

This means the case plays out less in court than in so many spiritual backrooms, suggesting a modern paranoid thriller in which one of the foundations of our free and fair democracy is unmasked as not so free and not so fair, the will of the people ripe for manipulation by the highest bidder. Despite a plot that is generally to the contrary, however, the four-person screenplay still pledges callow allegiance to the law, and despite one line of dialogue near the end trying to escape the corner it has painted itself into, accidentally evoking the trial by jury system as bunk. Given this muddled point-of-view, then Fleder steals a march, “crack(ing) the whip,” as David Edelstein noted for Slate, by lighting the fires and rendering the movie in the manner of his darting, dipping camera. And though such a relentless pace means some story points drop by the wayside, like Jeremy Piven’s jury consultant for the good guys, the trade of momentum in place of meaning works well enough, “a patina of noir,” per Dargis, “by way of a luxury-car commercial.”

A luxury car like, say, Jaguar, selling The Art of Performance for 89 years running, and which “Runaway Jury” does too. The cast is more top-heavy than “A Time to Kill,” and though no one gives a truly indelible turn, either dramatically or melodramatically, no one is phoning it in, all professionally present, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band playing Albany, say, instead of East Rutherford, New Jersey. Though the script lets him down in this regard, sanding away some edges, Cusack comes closest to a three-dimensional turn, mischievously playing both to and against his innate likeability. Her character isn’t a femme fatale, but Weisz exudes some of those characteristics, nonetheless, as Marlee cockily keeps Rohr and Fitch on a leash. Bruce McGill should be in everything, which is why it’s nice to see him in “Runaway Jury” as the presiding judge, who the wily vet plays as the butt of the joke without knowing he’s the butt of the joke. Rohr is sort of the butt of the joke, too, and though the movie doesn’t always know it, Hoffman mostly does, his hammy tendencies here helping rather than distracting by helping emphasize the desperation of a naïve man lashing out at a rigged system he wants to believe is fair.

Part of the movie’s pre-release appeal was that Hoffman and Hackman, longtime friends, and one-time roommates, were finally appearing in a movie together, and is why they are given a scene not in the book, a courtroom lavatory confrontation. Theirs, though, is not as forceful as the one between Hackman and Weisz, a palpable physical menace in the air even as she maintains a playful edge before, right at the end, letting through this incredible whoosh of vulnerability.  It’s not vulnerability that Hackman creates in his part so much as “pro forma villainy,” to quote Dargis, though she does not really mean it as a criticism and neither do I. That’s what the role requires, evil exuberance rather than depth, though in his penultimate part, Hackman never goes too far even as he brings all sorts of delightful actorly flourish. Trials,” says Fitch, “are too important to be left up to juries,” a gauche line made for trailers that Hackman sells by the way he has his character sell it, the little expectant chuckle at the end, willing his employers to laugh, making it sound like his catchphrase. If you close your eyes, you can picture him delivering it in some cable TV commercial, one you might wake up to after dozing off, washing over you from the comfort of your Barcalounger. 

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