The Rainmaker (1997)

Written and Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I would say that the up and down nature of this John Grisham journey is getting maddening, but since we are in the uptick of that swing with The Rainmaker, I will hold my grievances until another bad film comes across the marathon list. The imbalance of good and bad movies in this marathon is definitely frustrating though, with the quality of each movie seemingly dependent on the directorial choices and perhaps partially due to the variation of source material. Having abandoned the literary portion of this marathon, that’s pure conjecture, but the cinematic values of the scenarios certainly feels varied. So perhaps Hollywood would have been better to vett which of Grisham’s best sellers stood the best chance of translating to celluloid.

Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a young lawyer fresh out of law school looking for a job. He lands at J. Lyman Stone (Mickey Rourke), who is a slimey, ambulance chasing lawyer, but it’s a start for Rudy. There, he meets Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito) an associate who has failed the Bar exam six times, but takes Rudy under his wing. When Stone gets into hot water, Rudy and Deck form their own practice, where Baylor’s first major case is against an insurance giant. While defending a dying man and his family (Mary Kay Place, Red West) against a corporate attorney machine (Jon Voigt), he begins to fall for a young woman (Claire Danes) in an abusive relationship. Rudy is young and inexperienced, but his passion and moral compass guide him in a profession rife with morally bankrupt actors.

What first immediately stands out with The Rainmaker is both the experienced and talented direction of Francis Ford Coppola, which is sure handed and more confident, if less flashy than you would think from an auteur type, as well as the performance from a young Matt Damon. The Rainmaker is right in the center of the Matt Damon moment of the late 90s which included Good Will Hunting, Rounders and Saving Private Ryan, all of which vaulted him to stardom. Coppola’s direction is like a warm blanket on a chilly night compared to the outputs of Pakula and Foley, whose John Grisham Cinematic Universe entries represent the subpar films. He handles this interwoven tale with adept precision, which pairs extremely well with Damon’s performance.

And in fact, this cast is riddled with great actors and performances. Danny DeVito in the supporting role is particularly strong, as are Red West and Mary Kay Place in much smaller roles. I think the narrative here borders with films like Erin Brockovich and Dark Waters in the “corporations are bad and out to get you” lane, which perhaps makes it more convention that you’d like, but its extremely well done and what sets it apart are the personal touches sprinkled throughout, which is led by the human performance from Matt Damon and paired with the side narrative of his relationship with the Danes character. I can see some call this section superfluous, but to me it is central to understanding Rudy Baylor, his motivations, and what makes him the hero in this story. He’s the anti-lawyer, looking to take on the rotten establishment and fight for what’s right, not just what makes him and everyone else the most money.

I would be much more interested in more Grisham movies if I knew the “series” would get directors like Coppola to sign on. Grisham and Marvel are not equal comparisons, but what has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe so successful in recent years is the ability to recruit great directors like Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi and get them to tell the stories in their own way. Schumacher, Foley, and eventually Fleder feel very much like directors for hire, and perhaps the Grisham machine’s penchant for star-studded casts is where all the money was spent, but give me great director plus young, cheaper, promising actor with a few notable vets any day of the week. I think that is the formula that might have worked best. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the quality of the material is entirely dependent upon the source material’s inability to consistently be cinematically exciting. All that said, The Rainmaker is an easy recommendation in this series.

★★★☆☆ – Liked It

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