[Screen It]


(1997) (Matt Damon, Danny DeVito) (PG-13)

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Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: An idealistic, but inexperienced young lawyer takes on a corrupt insurance company and its high dollar attorneys.
Rudy Baylor (MATT DAMON) is an idealistic, recent law school graduate. Hungry for work, he takes a job with Bruiser Stone (MICKEY ROURKE), a Memphis attorney with a less than stellar reputation. Paid on commission, Rudy works with Deck Shifflet (DANNY DeVITO), a middle- aged man who's failed the bar six times but still occasionally practices the law. Deck shows Rudy the ropes of being an "ambulance chaser," and the young lawyer meets his first clients.

There's Miss Birdie (TERESA WRIGHT), a rich widow who wants her money-grubbing adult children cut out of her will. Then there's Kelly Riker (CLAIRE DANES) whom Rudy meets in the hospital after her husband, Cliff (ANDREW SHUE), has abused her again. Feeling for her plight, Rudy does what he can to get her out of the destructive relationship. Finally there's Dot Black (MARY KAY PLACE) whose son Donny Ray (JOHNNY WHITWORTH) is dying from leukemia. Mrs. Black is suing Great Benefit, their insurance company that denied their claims just to save the company money.

After Bruiser is arrested, Rudy and Deck go into business for themselves and continue to represent the Black family. Inexperienced and having never tried a case before, Rudy perseveres, despite the ominous threat of Leo Drummond (JON VOIGHT) the high-priced attorney who's handling the defense. As the case proceeds, Rudy gets some help from a new judge, Tyrone Kipler (DANNY GLOVER) who's sympathetic to him and his case. For the most part, however, Rudy and Deck are on their own in overcoming the tremendous odds against them.

If they're fans of John Grisham stories ("The Firm," "The Pelican Brief," etc...) or someone in the cast, they might. Preteens, however, will probably have little or no interest in this film.
For a strong beating and elements of domestic abuse.
  • MATT DAMON plays an idealistic young lawyer who perseveres because he's driven to do what he thinks is right. While that's admirable, his action jeopardizes the client's case due to his inexperience, and thus he doesn't do what's best for her. He does help Kelly get out of her abusive relationship, however.
  • CLAIRE DANES plays a young wife who's in an abusive relationship, and like so many other women, she sticks with it for too long, despite knowing that she might end up dead.
  • DANNY DeVITO plays a man who's failed the bar exam many times but still occasionally practices as a lawyer. He also helps Rudy in the big court case.
  • JON VOIGHT plays a meanspirited attorney who does what he can -- both legally and illegally -- to stop Rudy and thus win the case.
  • The rest of the characters have smaller parts, but among the good role models are MARY KAY PLACE (as a mother fighting for what's right), JOHNNY WHITWORTH (who's brave despite dying of leukemia) and DANNY GLOVER (as the trial judge who tries to help Rudy in any way permissible by law). On the bad role model side is MICKEY ROURKE (as a corrupt attorney) and ANDREW SHUE (the wife beating husband).


    OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
    This is the sixth big screen adaption of yet another John Grisham novel, and like the last film, "The Chamber," this is one of his weaker stories that will most likely also have only a lukewarm run at the box office. Using the standard Grisham plot device of an idealistic (and usually) young lawyer who runs into big competition yet still manages to be victorious, this film has all of the elements needed to be successful. The plot, while not overly special, is competent and will have a comfy, well worn feel for Grisham fans. It features a varied and quite talented cast, along with an Academy Award winning producer (actor Michael Douglas) and an Oscar winning director (Francis Ford Coppola).

    So why isn't this a great movie? The fault lies mainly with the story. While it has an okay plot, there's just not enough there to stimulate audiences that have already grown accustomed to so many of Grisham's similarly written stories. Whereas "The Firm" (still the best Grisham adaption) had an increasingly ominous law firm that endangered the main character's life, and "A Time to Kill" had a gut wrenching story about racism, this one deals with a corrupt health insurance company. While we've all had our run-ins with bad insurance, it doesn't make for the best cinematic villainous force.

    Played more like an episode of nearly any TV legal drama, there's nothing special to this story. After a few key pieces of evidence are introduced, there's also not much doubt as to how the case will end (unless the jury is filled with complete idiots, but the movie's not about that). Additionally, a subplot involving spousal abuse -- while troubling -- doesn't add anything to the story and likewise has been examined countless times in numerous made-for-TV movies.

    Part of the movie's listlessness also lies with Coppola's direction. Usually a great director with tremendous, award-winning films (the "Godfather" movies, "Apocalypse Now," etc...) and highly stylized features ("Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Tucker") under his belt, this is now his second lame movie in a row (the first being "Jack" with Robin Williams). Not only does the film lack the Coppola "feel," but he commits the cardinal cinema sin by resorting to voice-over narration and the heavy use of sappy, melodramatic music to induce the mood.

    These are the sorts of things that novice film makers employ and while the voice over is often funny and isn't too intrusive, the overuse of the soap opera-ish music is so bad it's nearly campy. In an early scene with Rudy and Kelly in a hospital cafeteria, the music swings back and forth between serious and sappy as their topic of conversation changes, creating what one can only hope was an unintentionally melodramatic scene. Fortunately the film's second half loses much of that music, but the damage has already been done.

    Still, the film manages to survive, and that's mainly due to the many decent performances. Like many of the main characters in the later Grisham adaptions (Matthew McConaughey in "A Time to Kill," Chris O'Donnell in "The Chamber"), the film makers chose a relatively unknown or non lead actor to head up the cast, and Matt Damon does a fine job with his turn. He perfectly plays the determined, but overwhelmed lawyer, and creates an occasionally fumbling character that everyone can root for. Claire Danes isn't given much to do beyond the standard material in her battered wife role, and Jon Voight adds yet another unscrupulous villain to his resume by playing the corrupt attorney.

    Faring much better is Danny Glover as a new judge who cuts Drummond little slack (the first scene involving that is lots of fun) and Danny DeVito as Rudy's assistant. Given many of the better lines and scenes in the film, DeVito is a delight to watch (as usual). The film's also loaded up with well-known actors in smaller roles such as Roy Scheider, Dean Stockwell, Mickey Rourke, Randy Travis, and Andrew Shue who's nearly unrecognizable as the abusive husband.

    Yet like a disaster film with its all-star cast, the bevy of talented actors can't circumvent a lackluster plot. Not that it's as bad as most disaster movies, but one would expect something much more special, what with the cast and the noted director and producer's involvement. It all falls back to the standard issue plot, and also to the fact that the main character's intentions, though noble, are unrealistic.

    While Rudy's efforts dramatically work, it's doubtful this inexperienced lawyer -- who wants the best for the family and to bring down the insurance company -- would tackle the case himself. He obviously would have found someone else to do it, or at least to guide him through the motions. Of course that would have changed this movie's thrust, so we'll accept that he continues with it. Yet other than his strong beliefs, there's not enough impetus for him to do so. His lack of knowledge of courtroom procedure makes for an interesting dilemma, but again it's not realistic. Being an intelligent recent law school graduate, he would have known that he was not representing his client in the best way possible.

    What's most blatantly missing -- and sorely needed -- is having the main character find some clever way to succeed despite the odds (think of Tom Cruise's character in "The Firm"). Instead of such crowd pleasing events, things simply fall into Rudy's lap, and he wins despite himself and his lack of experience. While things are set up as purely black and white and good vs. bad -- all of which makes it easy for the audience to get behind the protagonist and root against the insurance company -- we want to see the hero actively be clever enough to get around the obstacles and win the case. Here, it just comes too easy.

    Sure, we're somewhat nitpicking and it's the story that troubles us the most. Having not read the original novel, I can't say whether they changed the story (as they did in "The Firm" and others), but it doesn't really make a difference whether it's the fault of Grisham or the film makers. Don't get us wrong -- the film isn't horrible by any means and it's certainly easy enough to sit through with the decent performances carrying us past the uninspired plot. Still, the final result is that it comes across more as a good made for TV movie -- except with a more stellar cast -- instead of what you'd expect on the big screen. If you didn't know better, you'd never guess that a director like Coppola was behind it.

    The big question is whether the film will continue the downward trend of diminishing box office returns for Grisham adaptions. While the next to last made film, "A Time to Kill" may or may not have been an aberration, the trend has been a continuous decline from "The Firm's" more than $150 million domestic gross, to "The Chamber's" less than $15 million take. Without a well- known lead, and sporting a less than interesting sounding plot, this film may need a "rainmaker" of its own to survive. Our prediction is for a cloudy, but dry future for this movie. We give "The Rainmaker" a 5 out of 10.

    Implied, and in one case observed, violence is the worst of the material in this film. We see the results of several instances of domestic abuse (a bloodied and bruised wife), and then see a violent confrontation between Rudy and the husband (that ends in the husband's reported murder at the hands of the wife in self-defense). Obviously the abuse victim is bruised and bloodied, and there are a few more instances of bleeding, but nothing that's too bad for the squeamish. For a PG-13 rated film, the profanity is extremely mild, and the existing minor sexual material is noted, for the most part, in some dialogue.

    There are some bad attitudes (among the insurance company and the lawyers who defend it) as well as some good topics of discussion for you and your children. Beyond only a little bit of drinking and just a bit more smoking, the rest of the material is pretty light. Although few preteens if any will want to see this film, some teenagers might. Thus, you should examine the content so that you can decide how appropriate is it for them, or for yourself.

  • People drink beer in a bar.
  • We occasionally see Mr. Black sitting in a backyard car with a bottle of liquor.
  • We learn that Kelly's husband was intoxicated when he beat her up.
  • Donny Ray orders a shot of Jack Daniels at a restaurant, but we don't see him drink it.
  • Bruiser and Rudy drink in a restaurant while Deck has tea.
  • Some people have "tropical" drinks at an island resort.
  • Donny Ray gets a bad nose bleed that spills down his face, onto his shirt and onto Rudy's contract.
  • Kelly's face is a bit bloody and her back is bruised after her husband has beat her.
  • Blood sprays onto the wall as Rudy hits Kelly's husband.
  • Rudy has a small stream of blood on his head after fighting Kelly's husband.
  • Obviously the insurance company has both as they make it their policy to deny every initial claim that crosses their desks. Not only are they then indirectly responsible for Donny Ray's death, but they also wrote a final letter to Mrs. Black asking if she were "stupid" by continuing to submit her claim. The company also fired many people involved with the case.
  • Drummond and his associates defend the insurance company, and also have both types of attitudes in their beliefs and procedures.
  • Deck admits to having practiced the law without having his license or passing the bar exam. He's also an "ambulance chaser," where he approaches any and all potential clients who've recently been injured in some fashion. Later, he illegally obtains some information to use in the case.
  • Kelly's husband continually beats her.
  • Two adult children are nice to their elderly mother only so that she'll put them back into her will.
  • Bruiser is a corrupt lawyer and businessman and is guilty of skimming money among other crimes.
  • The original trial judge and Drummond are in cahoots and conspire against Rudy and his case.
  • Scenes where we see Kelly and her husband are tense after we learn that he physically abuses her.
  • Rudy and Kelly return to her house after she's told her husband she's leaving. He then returns home, breaks down the front door, and fights with Rudy.
  • Handgun: Carried by Rudy as he and Kelly return to her place. Later, as Rudy and her husband fight, the gun comes into play several times, but it's never fired.
  • Baseball bat: Used by Kelly's husband to beat her (not seen, but the results are), and then to attack Rudy.
  • Phrases: "Piss him off," "Pissed off," "Bastards," "Screw" (used both sexually and non sexually), "Geez," "Piss ant," and "Idiot."
  • Kelly's husband suddenly bursts through their front door.
  • There's just a minor bit of such music in the film.
  • None.
  • At least 14 hells, 8 damns, 3 S.O.B.'s, 1 ass (used with "hole"), and 2 uses each of "G-damn" and "Oh my God," and 1 use each of "Swear to God," and "God" as exclamations.
  • Rudy says (in a voice-over), "What's the difference between a hooker and a lawyer? The girl will stop screwing you after you're dead."
  • Rudy and Kelly briefly watch a movie where there's some passionate kissing and the man in the film grabs the woman's clothed butt.
  • Kelly tells Rudy that her husband has become obsessed with sex.
  • A witness testifies that she had sex with one of her bosses in exchange for good benefits and pay.
  • Bruiser smokes in a few scenes as does Mrs. Black.
  • Deck smokes a cigar in one scene.
  • A witness smokes.
  • Mrs. Black must deal with her son dying of leukemia and with her husband being mentally ill.
  • Kelly is in an abusive marriage and must deal with constant beatings from her husband. She tells Rudy that she can't file for her divorce because her husband would kill her, and that he's told her as much.
  • An elderly woman must put up with her money-grubbing kids.
  • The health insurance industry.
  • Domestic/spousal abuse.
  • Standing up and fighting for what you believe in.
  • Kelly's husband knocks things from a cafeteria table and then throws a chair after he gets mad at her. We see that she's been injured and then learn that he repeatedly hit her with an aluminum baseball bat.
  • Kelly's husband has evidently beaten her again as we see her somewhat bloodied face and bruised back.
  • A potential juror jumps from the jury box and attacks Drummond and must be pulled away by the guards.
  • Kelly's husband confronts her and Rudy. He and Rudy then get into a fight where the husband smashes many things with a baseball bat while trying to hit Rudy. They knock each other around the room and the husband pulls down a cabinet onto Rudy. He does the same with the refrigerator and then kicks Rudy on the ground. Rudy finally gets the upper hand and hits the husband many times. Kelly then makes Rudy leave and we hear her hit the husband with the bat (killing him).

  • Reviewed November 15, 1997

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