John Grisham's The Rainmaker
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place, Danny Glover, Mickey Rourke, Virginia Madsen, Roy Scheider, Teresa Wright. (1997, PG-13, 137 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 21, 1997
For all we know, John Grisham may have filing cabinets full of unoptioned screenplays in which wealthy corporate and legal interests effortlessly crush scrappy underdogs who naïvely believe their passion for justice can overcome the bad guys' money, power, and treachery. But as Grisham cultists already know, The Rainmaker does not in any way screw with the formula that has yielded some of the most popular books and movies of the Nineties. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who established his towering reputation with an adaptation of another pulpy pop novel, hasn't exactly uncorked another The Godfather here. He has, however, rediscovered his old flair for identifying and embellishing a good story -- whatever its source -- and parlayed it into his most satisfying film since 1988's Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The Rainmaker's basic outlines are similar to A Time to Kill. A wet-behind-the-ears young lawyer named Rudy Baylor (Damon) risks his budding career by helping a poor, jerked-over client (Place) fight evil interests represented by an arrogant and unprincipled superlawyer (Voight). It's not quite the Matthew McConaughey-Kevin Spacey confrontation all over again; The Rainmaker's criminals are slimeball insurance executives, not murderous rednecks, and Damon's character is even greener than McConaughey's was. The basic situations and ideas remain the same, though, including his lawyer protagonists' development of emotional as well as pecuniary relationships with his clients. Also typical of Grisham is a blunt concession of his former profession's dark side balanced by an argument that lawyers are, in balance, not quite the bipedal cockroaches of popular mythology. As in much of his best work, Coppola does a masterful job of cooking a large, detail-packed story down to its vital human essence. Where a Sidney Lumet would serve up bombastic speechifying, and broad, napalm-laced satire, Coppola focuses on small, revealing idiosyncrasies in his characters and their funky Memphis environs. The acting is solid, from big guns like Voight and DeVito (as Damon's raffish, ambulance-chaser mentor) to lesser lights like Damon, who turns in a surprisingly authoritative performance in a role that, one imagines, was offered to others before him. Scheider and Rourke are savory as, respectively, a Luciferian insurance mogul and a roguish lawyer/racketeer named “Bruiser” Stone. At almost two and a half hours, The Rainmaker feels a bit flaccid at times, and a marginally interesting subplot about Rudy's entanglement with a young, abused wife (Danes) could vanish unmourned. But Coppola's patient, graceful storytelling artistry, the subtly evocative cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall), and the primal emotional punch of Grisham's basic ideas make The Rainmaker a determined cut or two better than we had any reason to expect.