John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997)

D: Francis Ford Coppola
S: Matt Damon, Danny De Vito, Claire Danes

This elegant and entertaining legal drama from the erratic hand of Francis Ford Coppola restores some faith (critical and commerical) in the New Hollywood maverick following the disastrous Jack. Easily the classiest of the six John Grisham adaptations to date, the film follows the story of rookie attourney Matt Damon on his quest to tackle an ultra-powerful insurance company and their team of high priced lawyers (including heavyweight Jon Voight) over a lukemia claim which they have wrongfully denied. He is coached in his efforts by a disreputable Memphis gangster (Mickey Rourke) and a streetwise paralegal (Danny De Vito) who has failed the bar exam six times but continues to practice anyway. Providing a dramatic counterpoint to the main narrative is a story of a battered wife (Claire Danes) whom Damon encourages to leave her husband and with whom romance blossoms.

There is no need to make lofty claims for this film other than to state that under Coppola's direction, another routine Grisham tale is transformed into a touching human drama. His camera has an instinctive feel for the tones and rhythms of human interaction, and even the inevitable voice over cannot distract us. The pace and mood of the film is gentle and humane. It is just as concerned for the characters as for the plot which inevitably marches on beneath them, and though replete with courtroom clichés and every manner of old fashioned plot device the genre has to offer, the film stays ahead of the pack with ease.

Damon gives a commanding performance as the clueless youngster pitched against the proverbial impossible odds, and he is complemented beautifully by De Vito; his physical size proving an advantage to the characterisation of their relationship and his performance, as ever, spot on. They are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, and although Rourke makes what amounts to an extended cameo, he leaves an indelible impression of the ambiguities of the legal profession which informs the film's overall discussion of the nature of justice. Jon Voight is properly hateful, with Roy Scheider making an equally evil guest appearence at the climax. Danny Glover also pitches in as a benevolent judge replacing the cancerous and crusty Dean Stockwell, and supported by less well known actors in each of the other parts, the film is brilliantly cast and provides ample opportunity for instinctive performances from all concerned.

At the end of the day it is a film no more or less profound than those which have proceeded it. It retains all of the concerns of the courtroom genre and captures Grisham's distinct Southern accent laid on with a trowel in A Time to Kill. But under Coppola's direction the film achieves a more naturalistic metre which serves both far better than any of the other films have done. Without denying him his artistic integrity, one would have to note that Coppola has achieved a transparency of direction here which brings to mind the films of Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. But given that there are distinctive elements of the Coppola style present, perhaps John Ford or Howard Hawks would be a more appropriate model (artists who denied artistry yet evinced it quite clearly).

In short, even if you are sick to death of John Grisham adaptations, perhaps especially if you are, do not miss your opportunity to see this one. It is a good film in the classic Hollywood mould; old fashioned entertainment with no song and dance about it, but always a touch of class that comes from years of sheer professionalism.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.