GARDEN VARIETY Jaunty 'Rainmaker'; Review: Movie is the best yet of a John Grisham novel, thanks partly to the lawyer jokes.


"The Rainmaker" is the best John Grisham movie ever.

But it's still a John Grisham movie.

Chock-full of funky characters, blessed with a terrific cast and perked up with ironic humor, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation is the most lively version of Grisham's best-selling pulp to date, one that countervails the author's tiresome righteousness with an undercurrent of cheerful sleaze.

But about two-thirds of the way through, the audience is reminded that this is, after all, John Grisham. The author's long arm reaches in to snatch away the bonhomie of "The Rainmaker" and bludgeons the audience with his trademark mawkishness, simple-mindedness and defense of spiraling litigation.

Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a young law school graduate who, desperate for work, comes under the tutelage of one Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke, sporting a wonderfully hoarse, swampy drawl), a lawyer of sundry and shady extracurricular concerns. In case we don't come up with the metaphor on our own, Bruiser keeps a tank of baby sharks in his office (which are used to clever effect during the credits sequence), and Rudy keeps up the deprecatory tone of the film by reciting lawyer jokes in his narration.

Rudy has brought two cases with him, but Bruiser's "paralawyer," Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), lets him know in no uncertain terms what's really expected of him: monitor the police accident reports, show up at the hospital with a contract at the ready, and get the victims to sue the bums that did it (and cut Bruiser in for a third). So what if the patient's arm is in a cast? Deck is happy to guide his hand to the appropriate dotted line.

Rudy is appalled, but he continues to accompany Deck to the hospital, where he even develops a crush on the victim of vicious spousal abuse. Meanwhile, he continues to press his two cases: an elderly woman who wants to take her children out of her will and a poor family whose insurance company won't pay for their son's leukemia treatment. When the son dies, Rudy's fight has just begun: As Deck says upon walking into the wake, "Now it's a wrongful death suit -- gazillions!"

This is the type of irreverent wit that keeps "The Rainmaker" on a consistently jaunty course, at least throughout the first two acts. Damon, who shone as the drug-addicted soldier in "Courage Under Fire," imbues Rudy with the appropriate amalgam of incipient strength and downy naivete: His upper lip sweats with charming appeal. DeVito, so recently miscast in "L.A. Confidential," is in his element here, and Coppola wisely holds him back from his usual schtick (the short jokes and slapstick don't commence for an hour and a half). Jon Voight, as the insurance company's attorney who teaches Rudy the fine points of mano-a-mano courtroom tactics, delivers an inspired performance as the lawyer whose scruples are buried in the same box as his law school degree.

It's a tribute to Coppola that the funny bits of "The Rainmaker" don't dilute the movie's legitimately emotional moments. Mary Kay Place and Red West move small mountains as parents in the throes of losing their only son (West's silent performance as a grieved father is especially powerful); Dean Stockwell, Danny Glover and Roy Scheider class up an already classy group. The venerable cinematographer John Toll has added visual luster to the story's Memphis setting, and the equally venerable composer Elmer Bernstein has flecked his score with tasty licks from a Hammond B-3.

But even with all of this going for it, "The Rainmaker" still sags. For one thing, the romance between Rudy and his damsel in distress (Claire Danes) is a long and winding road that never converges with the main action. And by the time the trial is under way, it becomes clear that, for all its humor and style, "The Rainmaker" is still about insurance claims. Not only that, but its big revelation is that insurance companies can be incredibly nasty.

Not exactly a show-stopping observation, though John Grisham tries to convince us it is. Was it Grisham or Coppola who suggested taking the perfectly eloquent moment of a distraught father showing courtroom observers a picture of his dead son, then stealing all of its poignancy by playing a videotape of the boy just moments earlier? Whoever it was, this is Pathos 101, and it's made all the more objectionable by Grisham's unabashed belief that more lawsuits are the solution, not the problem.

Coppola has done an admirable job of translating Grisham's turgid prose into a vivacious David-and-Goliath tale, but there's no escaping that Grisham's idea of winning somehow always leaves us deeper in the mud.

'The Rainmaker'

Starring Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Rated PG-13 (strong beating, elements of domestic abuse)

Released by Paramount Pictures

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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