The story unfolds in a contemporary Memphis overrun with competing attorneys. Eager Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) tries to establish himself with the help of a self-described "paralawyer," Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), and a dynamite case of insurance fraud. A company called Great Benefit has refused to approve a bone-marrow transplant for a poor leukemia victim, Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth); as the boy lies dying, his parents, Dot and Buddy (Mary Kay Place and Red West), ask Rudy to fight Great Benefit's haughty denials of the family's claims. ("You must be stupid, stupid, stupid," concludes one of the company's letters.)
Holden Caulfield kicked off The Catcher in the Rye by sneering at his readers, "The first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like . . . all that David Copperfield kind of crap." Grisham toadies to his readers by providing all that David Copperfield crap, and more: a Dickens paradigm stripped of poetic and satiric genius, reduced to a white-bread Bildungsroman of an unblemished male ingenue battling an unjust system and acquiring a host of colorful or eccentric allies.
Coppola follows Grisham's lead. As the hero tumbles through his first-person narration (Michael Herr wrote the half-funny, half-clumsy voice-over), Rudy and Deck learn at the well-shod feet of their employer, Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), who runs topless bars as well as a consortium of unapologetic ambulance chasers; get not-too-subtle help from Judge Tyrone Kipler (Danny Glover), who can't hide his mistrust of the fat cats in the Great Benefit case; and team up with Jackie Lemanczyk (Virginia Madsen), a former Great Benefit claims adjuster willing to blow the whistle on her ex-employer. In the meantime, Rudy finds a surrogate mother in his landlady, Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright), who hates her real children, and experiences love at first sight with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife.
This is the type of underdog fable in which the underdog is little more than a puppy, and a whole lot of people are ready to pat him on the head and give him a biscuit--or give him puppy love, in the case of bland, vulnerable Kelly. Rudy is Grisham's by-now-familiar stand-in for himself, and Coppola doesn't eliminate the author's self-adoring sentimentality. In some ways, he accentuates it. In the book, before the main story starts, Rudy trashes one law firm and is suspected of torching another. It's understandable for Coppola to cut these introductory episodes, but without some version of them, there's nothing to lend shading or weight to Rudy's character. When he breaks out in a murderous fit at Kelly's battering husband, he's not a hothead--he's a Galahad who's had it. Damon was both dignified and tremulous in Courage Under Fire and Geronimo: An American Legend, but here he wears an on-and-off kind of deadpan. It's hard to tell if his guarded expression is actually guarding anything.
Coppola stays true to Grisham--and exposes him. What makes Grisham an easy read during half-dozes on beach towels or in hammocks is the way he spins a yarn out by the yard: one plot development per chapter. Coppola compresses the material without strengthening it: He ends up with a ball of yarn. He tries to add texture and vibrancy, but in effect underlines the banal: For example, in the film, Rudy spots Kelly as a battered spouse--not just because he sees her husband brutalize her (in a wheelchair! in a hospital cafeteria!), but because his own mother was one. And when the voice-over doesn't drive home the obvious, Elmer Bernstein's music hammers us instead. Has Coppola grown to mistrust the audience? Not necessarily. He may want to pump feeling into a narrative that unfortunately rejects it. The histrionic intrusions are like failed operatic arias: Donny Ray's dad parading a picture of his dead son in the face of the Great Benefit defense; the man who wrote the "stupid, stupid, stupid" letter grimacing on the witness stand as if he can't stand his own stink.
At least Coppola resists the slam-bang sententiousness of Joel Schumacher's A Time to Kill. Although he overworks Rudy's novice status (the young man needs an objection cheat sheet), he keeps the courtroom action loose and the verdict unpredictable. The camera sometimes points in the wrong direction, and there are several glaring errors in storytelling and stagecraft--like Rudy emerging from a deadly scuffle with nary a visible scratch. But as in a serviceable beach book, you can adjust to the slack rhythms; you can follow the story while your mind goes into alpha, content to absorb the legal stratagems and the unraveling of the insurance scam.
The actors' moments of truth are what pierce the mental fog. Mary Kay Place gives an unsettling, weary buzz to the role of a disappointed wife and mother; no performer alive does more with a knitted brow. Whitworth imbues her ailing son with just the right sad purity. Madsen, as a badly used woman, conjures a worn sensuality that's both sordid and touching.
And the movie's highly caffeinated blend of sinners occasionally jolts you wide awake. Jon Voight, in the part of Great Benefit's rich, devious lawyer, wins laughs with his voluptuous Southern accent, especially when he says he hopes the proceedings won't turn "p-u-u-u-gilistic." Rourke's suggestive burned-out sheen makes you wish he had more to play as Bruiser. And DeVito's Deck--avidly signing up clients as they lay in traction--looks and acts like a spark plug. The movie peaks when he says a lawyer should "fight for his client, refrain from stealing money, try not to lie--you know, the basics." Not everything DeVito does is choice; he punctuates his scenes with clumsy slapstick. But his bustling, simpatico pragmatist--not Damon's wan, moralistic Rudy--keeps the picture moving. During the recent publicity for the rerelease of The Godfather, Coppola talked about identifying with Al Pacino partly because he was short and Italian. In The Rainmaker, he lets the stubby paisano run away with the show.
John Grisham's The Rainmaker
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; with Matt Damon, Claire Danes and Danny DeVito.