For all the money and talent lavished on filming The Firm, the best seller by former lawyer John Grisham, you can't help feeling let down. The book moved at turbo speed. At two and a half hours, the movie crawls, even with Tom Cruise as Mitch McDeere, the Harvard Law graduate who learns that the classy Memphis, Tenn., firm he's joined is a front for the mob. Director Sydney Pollack zapped out a taut thriller in Three Days of the Condor. But The Firm is mostly flab, in the manner of Pollack's elephantine Havana. With a director of Pollack's gifts (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Tootsie), one tends to make excuses. Maybe he wanted to bring taste, introspection and characterization to what was essentially a quick read. If so, it was a miscalculation.
Grisham had fun with his story; Pollack treats it like scripture. The early chapters, in which the firm dangles money, a house and a car in front of poor-boy McDeere, suckered us all in. But the movie never lets this Everyman enjoy succumbing to temptation, perhaps out of fear of losing our sympathy. His wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), functions as a '90s conscience about '80s greed. Even the ending is altered to show that McDeere is smarter than everybody else. His character flaws have been downplayed to suit Cruise's star persona.
Take McDeere's infidelity on a business trip to the Cayman Islands, which functioned as an erotic and enlightening key to his weakness in the book. Karina Lombard, as the girl the firm has hired to seduce the lawyer on the beach, practically rapes McDeere, who stays dressed and looks uncomfortable throughout the ordeal. The scene has no heat.
The suspense scenes are scarcely better. McDeere sniffs out a conspiracy after two colleagues die under mysterious circumstances. But the head of the firm (Hal Holbrook) and the security chief (Wilford Brimley) are stock villains. The FBI, which urges McDeere to testify against the firm in exchange for dubious protection, is another easy target, though Ed Harris adds bite to the role of a kickass agent. He's one of the minor characters who bring the film fitfully to life.
Holly Hunter is hell on high heels as Tammy Hemphill, the wife of an Elvis impersonator who cheats on her husband with a detective (Gary Busey) hired by McDeere to snoop behind the firm's back. David Strathairn is slyly appealing as Ray, the convict brother McDeere calls on for help. "I love your crooked little mouth," Ray tells Tammy in a scene that effortlessly sets off the sparks Cruise and Tripplehorn can't get going.
Best of all is Gene Hackman as Avery Tolar, McDeere's tarnished legal mentor and the film's idea of what McDeere could become if he sells out. Hackman gives the role a romantic grace that is eminently watchable; it's also extraneous to a movie that takes too many dead-end detours. The humorless script, by David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel, exposes every hole in the plot and disdains its enjoyably trashy allure. Grisham fans might well ask, "Where's the pulp?"