All of the elements for a can't-miss film were there. A David vs. Goliath
story about an idealistic young man battling corrupt lawyers and a
soulless insurance company, directed by the legendary Francis Ford
Coppola from his screenplay of John Grisham's best-selling novel. Yet,
"The Rainmaker" is a major disappointment, a self-righteous exercise in
audience manipulation that chokes on its own smugness. While the film
retains some pleasures, Coppola's heavy-handed direction snuffs out the
sense of exhilaration a story like this should have.
The first hint of trouble comes from the official title, "John Grisham's
The Rainmaker." The prolific Grisham has become a brand name, and
whenever Hollywood slaps an author's name onto the title of a film, it's
safe to expect the worst. Think of "Stephen King's Graveyard Shift,"
"Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough" or "Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline"
and you'll get the idea.
The story, while not exactly earth shaking, is durable enough. Recent
Memphis law-school graduate Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon,) idealistic and
eager to work, reluctantly hooks up with Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke,) a
sleazeball lawyer who keeps a live shark in his office aquarium, lest we
miss the other painfully obvious signs of his corruption. Stone pairs the
kid with Deck Schifflet (Danny DeVito,) an ambulance-chaser who has
failed the bar six times, and sets the pair off to troll for business at
a local hospital, where Baylor meets Kelly Riker (Claire Danes,) a young
woman whose husband batters her on a regular basis.
Refusing to adopt his employer's tactics, Baylor takes his own path,
renting a room from Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright,) an elderly client
looking to cut her money-grubbing kids out of her will, leaving her
assets to a televangelist instead. "He needs the money," she explains,
"Why, the upkeep on his jet alone costs a fortune." But Baylor's big case,
and the centerpiece of the story, is a lawsuit against Great Benefit, an
insurance company that specializes in shafting the poor. Donny Ray Black
(Johnny Whitworth) is dying of leukemia and the company has flatly and
repeatedly denied his claims, climaxing in a letter to his mother (Mary
Kay Place) rejecting the claim for the "final time" and calling her
"stupid, stupid, stupid." So the inexperienced young Baylor and his
ramshackle assistant head for court, defending a dying boy and his poor
family against a battery of high-priced lawyers, hatchet men for an evil
corporation. Any idea how the case will turn out?
Fine, so its a obvious story with easy targets. Lots of memorable films
have came from trite ideas. "Hoosiers" also told a David vs. Goliath tale,
filled with every cliché in the book, yet that film succeeds while "The
Rainmaker" flounders. Why? Because inexplicably, Francis Ford Coppola
undermines the very film he is directing. Coppola's work here is so ham-
handed that it smothers the emotional impact of the story. Scenes of the
corporate lawyers, led by Jon Voight, are painful studies in overkill.
Coppola doesn't allow the bad guys even a hint of humanity. Instead,
every shot shows them scowling, smirking or exchanging smug glances. They
are nothing less than walking cartoons; watching them get their
comeuppance carries about as much dramatic weight as seeing Yosemite Sam
shoot himself in the foot.
Then there is Danny DeVito's Deck Schifflet character. "The Rainmaker" is
designed to give viewers vicarious kicks by watching an idealistic young
man bring down an arrogant corporation by taking on their unethical
lawyers, yet Schifflet's equally corrupt behavior is played for laughs.
Schifflet is a bottom-feeder, but presented as just a lovable little
scamp. His antics disrupt the film's dramatic flow and become
increasingly annoying as the story trudges along.
Thank goodness for "The Rainmaker's" strong cast. Matt Damon is fine in
the lead role. He underplays the part nicely, investing Baylor with an
appealing blend of awkwardness and strength of character. DeVito gives a
hearty performance as well, despite how his character is misused. Claire
Danes does what she can as the abuse victim, although the whole story
involving her character is treated as a sketchy footnote to the film,
rather than a major secondary story. Teresa Wright is appealing as the
flighty, but feisty Miss Birdie, but the real scene-stealer here is Mary
Kay Place, with a resonant performance as the mother of the dying young
Despite the best efforts of the cast, "The Rainmaker" packs little impact.
Beyond all the problems with Coppola's direction, the simple truth is
that you can find more inventive, better told stories than this by
flipping on the TV and watching "Homicide," "Law & Order" or "The
Practice." You may not get John Grisham's brand name, but you'll save $7.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott