The only thing sadder than seeing the director of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy hire on to film a legal best seller that includes the author’s name in the title is seeing that John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, really is more Grisham than Coppola. The film isn’t a bust – it’s serviceable entertainment, if you don’t mind watching a master serve a hack.
Coppola’s film follows the formula that has made Grisham a rainmaker (or a “hotshot”) since the Mississippi attorney left court to churn out potboilers (The Firm, A Time To Kill) about idealistic young lawyers who win big victories at the price of disillusionment.
Matt Damon stars as Rudy Baylor, who is just out of law school and so eager he’d work for free if he didn’t have to pay rent to rich, dotty Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright) by working for a shifty law firm run by Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke is primo sleaze and sly fun in the bargain). Rudy falls in love with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife, and then finds the case that can make his reputation.
Representing the poor family of a young man (a touchingly restrained Johnny Whitworth), who is battling leukemia and being denied benefits from his insurance company, Rudy takes on Goliath with the help of a partner, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), who continuously fails to pass the bar.
With The Godfather, Coppola teased art out of Mario Puzo’s pulp novel. But Grisham lacks Puzo’s vulgar vitality. Damon, so good in Courage Under Fire, is stuck being earnest. That’s why Coppola encourages a gifted cast of character actors to cut loose. Cheers to Jon Voight for making Leo F. Drummond, Rudy’s legal nemesis, an irresistible blend of manners and menace. And the electrifying Virginia Madsen is Oscar bait as Jackie Lemanczyk, a blowsy claims adjuster who earns her day of dignity in court. These zaps of energy can’t save audiences from the grinding predictability of Grisham’s plot. To do that, it would take a film called Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker.