The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker is the sixth movie to be made from a John Grisham novel, and by far the best. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, takes the manipulative, potboiling story and digs in with both hands. This isn’t as striking a case of sow’s-ear-into-silk-purse as was The Godfather, Coppola’s masterpiece based on Mario Puzo’s trashy bestseller. Coppola turns this sow’s ear into more of a functional handbag with gaudily attractive decorations.

The Grisham hero this time is Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a struggling young Tennessee legal eagle who’s just signed onto a low-rent firm (headed by Mickey Rourke — that’s how low-rent it is). In addition to chasing ambulances and sniffing out potentially lucrative cases, Rudy also has to cram for the bar exam, protect a young woman (Claire Danes) whose rotten husband beats her with an aluminum bat, pull the weeds around the house where he’s a lodger, and handle the case of a lifetime: representing a leukemia-stricken young man (Johnny Whitworth) who’s been screwed by his shifty corporate insurance company.

Everything including the dogs snappin’ at his heels (when he first visits the dying boy, the family dogs bark at him) — this is one beleaguered hero, and Matt Damon plays Rudy with sweet, deferential modesty. Coppola doesn’t sell him like a bar of soap, the way Joel Schumacher hyped Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. Rudy is eager and passionate but also klutzy and inexperienced — we see ample evidence of his greenness in court. The slickster representing the insurance company, Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight, clearly having a great time) welcomes the chance to squash this young gnat, but he seems to regret it, too — Leo admires the boy’s passion and envies it. “Do you remember when you sold out?” Rudy asks a grim-faced Leo.

The best card The Rainmaker has in its deck — better than Coppola, even — is Danny DeVito, perfectly cast as Deck Schifflet, a partner at Rudy’s firm who’s never passed the bar but has managed to absorb invaluable legal experience by surreptitiously practicing without a license. DeVito was hilarious as the crude, stupid father in his own Matilda last year; here, playing a smart man, he’s just as funny, but also intensely likable — even when he’s bothering a bandaged man in a hospital bed and slipping him a business card.

Coppola also wrote the script, and I suppose he felt he needed to keep the abused-wife subplot to inject some romance (i.e., box-office appeal) into the story. Still, despite Claire Danes’ touching performance and her gentle, tentative rapport with Damon, I could have done without the subplot. It feels unconnected to anything else in the story, and it leads to a conventionally violent confrontation. It’s clear by now that Grisham relishes vigilante justice — but only the good kind, of course.

The Rainmaker is nothing great — just a solid entertainment whose likely success (on the heels of the successes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jack) may restore some of Coppola’s clout and grease the wheels for the projects close to his heart. If it does, it will have done its job. The question is: Does Coppola remember when he sold out, and how to do great work again?

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama

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