Judge Daniel MacDonald is thrilled by this legal thriller.
"Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel. I'm a lawyer at last."—Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon)
In the mid-nineties, author John Grisham made a lot of hay while the sun was shining: within a five-year period, eight of his books were adapted into feature films, helmed by directors like Sidney Pollock (The Firm), Robert Altman (The Gingerbread Man), and in the case of The Rainmaker, the great Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather). Was Coppola simply jumping on a popular bandwagon, looking to regain some of the critical love he lost with Jack, or is The Rainmaker worthy of such high caliber talent on its own merits?
Facts of the Case
Studying for the bar exam and looking for a place to live, young Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) takes a job at a shady law firm owned by Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke, Domino), learning the ropes of ambulance chasing from "paralawyer" Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito, Hoffa).
Sworn in as a lawyer, Rudy's doing great, helping a sweet older lady (Teresa Wright, The Little Foxes) cut her greedy children out of her will and coming to the aid of a brutally battered wife (Claire Danes, Shopgirl). But before he knows it, Rudy's the lead prosecutor in a high profile case against an insurance company, much to the delight of never-lose defense lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight, Ali). Rudy's quickly learns that the courtroom's a lot different from the classroom, and outsmarting his opposition's high-priced legal team looks like an unassailable challenge for this rookie.
Francis Ford Coppola has not directed a film in ten years, since 1997's The Rainmaker. As he explains in the introduction to his audio commentary on this disc, The Rainmaker was the end of his career as a highly-paid studio director, and in the interim he has been working to become an "amateur," doing what he does for love instead of money. Sure, he hasn't been sitting around twiddling his thumbs, as he's executive-produced several pictures and a television series, and even oversaw the re-editing of the sci-fi train wreck Supernova. Revisiting The Rainmaker makes one realize what film lovers have been missing all this time.
The Rainmaker is easily the best Grisham adaptation to come out of Hollywood. It's effortlessly novelistic, juggling an unusually large number of storylines, always keeping Rudy Baylor at the center of the story. When Rudy's trying to find a way out for Danes' abused and damaged Kelly Riker, you would never know the movie was about anything else. But the next scene might find Rudy struggling with the insurance company case, and we're completely present in the details of that situation, shifting gears without even knowing it. The multi-faceted screenplay is always engaging, yet never rushed, with every scene given opportunity to breath and develop according to its own internal timeline. Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, seems one hundred percent committed to telling a great story, unpressured by the modern inclination toward quick cuts, fancy camerawork, and speed over character development. The Rainmaker is a crowd-pleaser to savor.
As you'd expect, The Rainmaker is not an unpredictable film: indeed, you'll likely be able to predict how each storyline will wrap up shortly after it's been introduced. But suspense is created through unexpected twists within the structure of individual scenes, little events that you didn't see coming or don't play out the way you thought. The Kelly Riker scenes in particular are handled with a great deal of taste and restraint, never exploiting what could be sensational subject matter, showing and talking about just enough of the abuse she endures to justify events to come. The Rainmaker is satisfying not because of its ultimate resolution, but, in a way, in spite of it.
Currently one of North America's hottest actors, Matt Damon's first leading role came with The Rainmaker; the movie came out a little over a month before the premiere of Good Will Hunting. Despite his inexperience, though, Damon arrives with a remarkably earnest and confident performance. It's fitting that he's playing a newbie lawyer thrown into the deep end, as here he is being directed by four-time Oscar winner, going head to head with a formidable cast. Damon appears in almost every scene, and one would never guess that this was his first lead role.
Paramount released The Rainmaker in 1998 as one of the company's first DVD offerings, meaning it sported a letterbox transfer and no special features. The Rainmaker: Special Collector's Edition has improved upon the picture quality somewhat with rich anamorphic goodness, but unfortunately the image is still slightly soft, especially in the frequent long shots. Further, minor edge enhancement is noticeable along characters' profiles and in small detail. Minor quibbles aside, the predictably lovely cinematography by John Toll (The Thin Red Line) is well represented. From an audio perspective, The Rainmaker is a quiet picture, and the surrounds don't really come to life except with Elmer Bernstein's (Trading Places) jazzy score, but dialogue is nicely balanced with no tearing, and there's plenty of dynamic range.
The Rainmaker: Special Collector's Edition has a solid set of special features of unexpected quality. The audio commentary with Coppola and DeVito, while spotted with quiet stretches, provides a fascinating perspective on the movie and plenty of behind-the-scenes revelations. Coppola is candid and warm, revealing much about why decisions were made and what he might have done differently. A handful of deleted scenes, including an extended opening sequence that was wisely compressed into a two-minute montage, are included, with notes from Coppola on the alternate opening and ending, as well as a series of screen tests for Damon, Danes, and others.
But the best is the twenty-five minute documentary, "Francis Ford Coppola Directs John Grisham's The Rainmaker." An eye-opening and entertaining look at Coppola's presumably unique method of working with actors, this featurette focuses on the acting exercises he employs to keep performances fresh and honest. I've really never seen anything quite like it, a group of major actors playing "sound ball' in the middle of a set while the crew watches, or Matt Damon and Jon Voight fighting outside moments before a scene to get Damon's adrenaline pumping. It's a little-seen window into the acting process, and says a lot about Coppola as a director. Film buffs will likely find this featurette alone to be worth the price of the DVD.
Not the most original or unexpected story, The Rainmaker is thoroughly enjoyable because of fine acting, confident direction, and a well-written screenplay. It stands above the fray of Grisham adaptations, and is a solid, breezily entertaining entry into the filmography of a legendary director, presented with a satisfying set of special features. If for no other reason, The Rainmaker is recommended as a reminder of why we need Francis Ford Coppola to make more movies.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Francis Ford Coppola and Actor Danny DeVito
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