I knew from the opening scenes of Class Action, a courtroom drama that the ads are pushing as this year’s Presumed Innocent, that nothing in it would surprise me. In adjoining San Francisco courtrooms, the loudmouth ’60s idealist lawyer Jedediah Ward (Gene Hackman) delivers a bombastic closing argument and gets the spectators cheering, while, next door, his play-it-safe lawyer daughter Maggie (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) struggles to be heard above the noise. We register right away that the movie, no matter what its plot, will really be about how these two kiss and make up. It’s not a great premise.
Directed by Michael Apted from a script by lawyer Samantha Shad and TV vets Carolyn Shelby and Christopher Ames, Class Action takes as its subject the perfect catalyst for friction between the radical father and the conservative daughter. The auto company Argo (sounds like Pinto), which Maggie’s firm represents, is being sued for manufacturing cars that blow up on impact. The plaintiff, who lost his legs and his family in just such an explosion, is represented by Jed, who has made a career of bucking the system. Maggie, who’s sleeping with Argo’s legal liaison (Colin Friels), asks to handle the case: she wants to fight her father, whom she has always resented, on a battlefield where he can’t set the rules.
While we wait for the courtroom climax (and it’s a long wait), Class Action shoves a lot of domestic banalities at us. Maggie is hurt because Jed never paid attention to her and cheated on her mother (Joanna Merlin, who has a no-nonsense vitality the movie could’ve used more of), and because he can’t admit it when he’s wrong. Jed is bewildered that a child of his could stoop to defending a corporation he finds abhorrent. Ultimately, it’s Maggie who comes around. It’s another deification of the ’60s, but warmed-over; this could’ve been the plot of a movie twenty years ago, with the daughter as the radical and the father as the conservative. How far we’ve come! Here, it’s still the youngster — and the woman — who needs to be put in her place. This new ethic that says “Never trust anyone under thirty” is just as fatuous as the old one.
Maybe the worst thing about Class Action is that it’s too willing to cozy up to its liberal sensibilities (regular readers, if there are any, will recall that I’m a card-carrying leftie who gets tired of movies that suck up to my politics). The decision-makers at Argo are monsters who don’t care if their cars kill people, so long as they don’t have to recall them at a large cost. They are cartoon targets for our scorn. Maggie’s businesslike foolishness is dramatized more effectively than Jed’s tilting-at-windmills foolishness. (His private shame — over not telling a witness the risks of speaking out — is too easily justified.) So the movie breaks down into morally comfortable halves: Maggie defending the bad guys against Jed, and then Maggie and Jed joining forces against the bad guys. I haven’t given anything away by revealing that; it would only be a surprise if Maggie did not wind up helping Dad, because the plot is mainstream scaffolding all the way.
Though Hackman and Mastrantonio are solid (they have a few intense scenes together, and all their confrontations seem about to come to blows), and though there’s strong support from Larry Fishburne (as one of Jed’s partners) and Donald Moffat (as a legal bigwig), Class Action never comes alive. It’s a woefully unexciting courtroom drama; there’s no seaminess, no dirt, no guilty fun. None of the characters is ever in danger; we don’t fear for them, so there doesn’t seem to be much at stake. And certainly there’s no doubt as to the outcome. Teary-eyed, Jed and Maggie dance in a bar to the sludgy beat of Simply Red’s saccharine “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” after he has told her how much she reminds him of her mother. It’s a remarkably soft-headed wrap-up, as if the real issue of a car manufacturer’s culpability in the design flaws of its products were merely a backdrop in a father-daughter reconciliation soap opera. Which it is.