Published November 1, 1997
The Rainmaker is redundant proof that Francis Ford Coppola has lost it permanently. If you thought that things couldn’t get any worse for him after the egregious Jack, wait till you see this two-hour infomercial on behalf of the Trial Lawyers Association. Coppola seems to have used up whatever stores of subtlety and moral ambiguity he was blessed with by nature on the first two Godfathers, and now he is “into,” as they say, mere melodrama. The vehicle of same is a John Grisham novel which, converted to cinematic purposes, gives us a noble young hero, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), inspired to become a lawyer by the civil rights movement and in defiance (as he tells us in his opening voiceover) of his lawyer-hating, wife-beating dad.
Lawyer-hating and wife-beating, indeed, go together in this film, which cleverly starts us off with a real bottom-feeder of the legal profession, Bob, “Bruiser,” Stone (Mickey Rourke) with whom Rudy gets his first job out of law school. But Bruiser is soon out of business and on the run from the law, and Rudy is left to open his own new firm together with Bruiser’s lovable, ambulance-chasing sidekick, Dick Shifler (Danny DeVito). “They didn’t teach me to chase ambulances in law school,” says Rudy with mild reproach.
“Well, you’d better learn quick or you’re going to starve,” says lovable Dick.
Dick is lovable because he believes, as we are meant to do, that “there’s nothing more thrilling than nailing an insurance company.” Why should we believe that? Every time an insurance company is “nailed” by some contingency-fee lawyer like these guys, two people — at least one of them a lawyer — win the lottery, and the rest of us have to pay higher prices for insurance. The racket is a great one for the lawyers, of course, but Grisham has to sell a lot of books and Coppola has to sell a lot of tickets to non-lawyers in order for them to earn a crust. So they contrive to make this attorney-enrichment scheme attractive to the rest of us by making the lovable lawyers’ adversaries as unattractive as possible.
For a start, the insurance company they sue, Great Benefit, is not only huge, heartless, arrogant and corrupt, it is also, jointly and severally, stupider than a load of bricks. Its lead attorney, Leo Drummond (Jon Voight) is a transparent fraud, and he and his fellow Great Benefit employees leave a paper trail a mile wide which allows even a tyro attorney like Rudy to “nail” them on behalf of a heart-tugging family of poor white trash whose only son dies because Great Benefit will not pay for a bone-marrow transplant. Why not? Because the transplant is said to be an “experimental” procedure. But what do you think Rudy finds just lying around? A document in which Great Benefit’s own medical council advises it to invest in a clinic for bone-marrow transplantation on the grounds that it is now a standard medical procedure! Gotcha!
If there were any doubt that Rudy the Lawyer is the good guy, he tells self-deprecating lawyer-jokes ( “What’s the difference between a lawyer and a hooker? The hooker will stop screwing you when you’re dead” ) to disarm criticism, and he uses both his two fists and his lawyerly skills to save the comely and grateful Claire Danes from another one of those lawyer-hating wife-beaters. He may also work for an insurance company, but we are not told so much. So Rudy not only gets the girl but wins the jackpot as well. Lucky at cards, lucky in love, I guess. But, hey, John Grisham’s rescue fantasies have made him millions of dollars, so what do I know? Somehow, I managed to resist the manifold temptations supplied by Grisham and Coppola to love Rudy and Rudy’s anti-insurance, anti-wife-beating crusade, but all the signs suggest that you movie-lovers out there will be seduced.