Wednesday, 25 July 2007
The Rainmaker (1997) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Matt Damon, Danny De Vito, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, Mickey Rourke
In 1997 Francis Coppola surprised us all with an adaptation of a John Grisham novel – one of the pulpier novelists of the 1990’s that produced a series of safe but saccharine courtroom thrillers. “The Rainmaker” is as enjoyable yet disposable as most of the Grisham adaptation. Though it doesn’t hit the high bar of “The Firm” in terms of suspense or tension, it does best the Schumacher films - “A Time to Kill” or “The Client” and is one of the better Grisham adaptations.
Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a recent grad from a humble state college. With no prospects for employment he takes the only job he can get, chasing ambulances for a slimy lawyer/loan shark/bail bondsman-type Bruiser Stone played to perfection by Mickey Rourke. Rudy’s ‘mentor’ is Deck Shiflet (Danny De Vito) a paralegal who’s failed the bar five times. Though Deck doesn’t have the official license to practice law his street smarts allow him to weasel into situations and gain information needed to conduct business and make money.
When Bruiser's practice comes under investigation Baylor and Shiflet split to form their own firm. Their only case is something Rudy stumbled upon while in school – the case of Donny Ray Black, a 22 year old kid suffering from Leukemia whose frequent insurance claims for treatment keep getting denied. Baylor and Shiflet become the David vs. the Goliath insurance company super lawyers headed by shyster Leo F. Drummand (Jon Voight).
The best moments in the film are in the opening act where Baylor is thrust into the sketchy world of guerilla lawyering and ambulance-chasing. The relationship of Baylor with Shiflet and Stone could have produced an interesting dynamic. Stone could have been a younger version of Baylor, Shiflet who got caught up in the scheming nature of the job lost all his passion for the job could have seen another version of himself in Baylor. The introduction of Baylor’s fish out of water into this environment could have produced more interesting character arcs for both Shiflet and Stone. Unfortunately Stone is taken out of the picture early and Shiflet ceases to become a character of his own and is virtually forgotten in terms of character development and change. This opportunityt is sorely missed.
Everything is focused on Baylor. His love interest, Kelly, played by Claire Danes, adds a bit too much drama onto his already stacked and stressful business plate. It’s hard to imagine nearly fighting to the death an angry boyfriend at night and coming to work the next day with the responsibility of trying the case for a grieving mother of a cancer victim. In fact, it’s completely irresponsible of Baylor to jeopardize the case for the acts he performs on behalf of Kelly.
The majority of the film is courtroom drama, and it suffers from all the same trappings of that genre. It’s very difficult to make the courtroom cinema-worthy even for considering the track record of Mr. Coppola.
From a craft point of view the film looks good without being overpowered in terms of cinematography. He smartly employs John Toll to shoot it instead of someone like Vittorio Storaro (who probably wouldn’t even take the job). I was pleased to see Coppola's trademark overlapping dissolves at the opening of the film. But I was disappointed by Elmer Bernstein’s score, a composer I’m very fond of, but this time he delivers something sounding like 70’s episodic television. And Michael Herr, who wrote the narration for “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket”, writes some functional and sometimes interesting voiceover.
I can only wonder what motivated Coppola to invest his time in this film. With his successful wine business keeping his cash flow positive and a cinematic legacy already written in stone it would appear Coppola could pick and choose his films. Maybe he was scarred from his wounds on the disastrous film “Jack” released the year before and needed to sharpen his skills again with some traditional material. Though "The Rainmaker" betters most of the other Grisham films, with Coppola his bar is always raised slightly higher and as a result it doesn’t quite hit it.
Buy it here: John Grisham's The Rainmaker (Special Collector's Edition)