With movie adaptations of John Grisham potboilers, the third time has proved the charm. The Firm was limp, and The Pelican Brief wasn't brief enough. The Client is nothing remotely special, just a routine legal melodrama with some major improbabilities flopping around in it. But director Joel Schumacher, abetted by the smoky cinematography of Merchant/Ivory fave Tony Pierce-Roberts, pours on the Southern Gothic atmosphere generously, and stirs in some fine, shady character performers. The result is an easygoing thriller, which is less paradoxical than it sounds, and quite pleasant. The story centers on an 11-year-old Memphis boy named Mark (Brad Renfro) who witnesses the grim suicide of a mob lawyer (Walter Olkewicz), but not before the half-crazed man has blurted out the location of evidence that federal prosecutors in New Orleans are looking for to help them put away a vicious young gangster (Anthony LaPaglia). Mark's younger brother also witnesses the death, and the trauma of it lands him in a charity hospital, with Mark and his mother (Mary-Louise Parker) waiting by his bedside.
Mark soon realizes that the feds know he talked to the dead man, and he recognizes that if he spills his guts to them, he'll become a mob target. He's no dummy; he knows when he's in a jam, and though he mistrusts lawyers--his mother's screwed up his custody hearing--he's smart enough to see that he needs one. So he walks into the office of small-potatoes lawyer Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who takes him on as a client for a one-dollar retainer.
Reggie, a recovering alcoholic who lost custody of her own kids to her ex-husband, takes a shine to Mark immediately, and in defending him against the publicity-hungry head fed (Tommy Lee Jones) and his cronies, she exercises her frustrated maternal instincts.
If you can swallow the laborious setup--I've never read one of Grisham's books, but based on the film versions, convincing plots don't seem to be his strength--The Client cruises along well, at least until the flat thriller scenes at the climax, set in a boathouse. These are simply too corny for anyone to pull off.
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Sarandon drops the tight intensity that was a drag on Lorenzo's Oil and plays Reggie with a hip, ironically sugary flirtatiousness that's droll without affectation. Jones hams it up again, but is much better behaved, and much more entertaining, than he was as the dotty Irish terrorist in the current dull actioner Blown Away.
The real fun in the film, however, comes from Schumacher's deployment of an enjoyable bunch of the usual suspects in supporting parts, among them Anthony Heald, J.T. Walsh, Ossie Davis, Bradley Whitford, Dan Castellaneta, LaPaglia as the slow-witted thug and Will Patton as a creepy cop who's reminiscent of Henry Jones in The Bad Seed.
Renfro is also a pleasure as Mark. Playing a headstrong, reckless, infuriatingly willful kid, he manages to be much more touchingly likable than most of the sweet-faced moppets the movies offer us.
Schumacher dresses up The Client lushly, but he does more. Both through his direction of Renfro and his stacking of the visual elements, he makes you feel for the kid. He elegantly brings out Grisham's theme--the willingness of prosecutors to exploit witnesses if they can get away with it. Among mainstream directors, Schumacher's one of the best, and least acknowledged, stylists currently around.