(director/writer: Francis Ford Coppola; screenwriter: based on the novel by John Grisham; cinematographer: John Toll; editors: Melissa Kent/Barry Malkin; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Matt Damon (Rudy Baylor), Claire Danes (Kelly Riker), Jon Voight (Leo F. Drummond), Mary Kay Place (Dot Black), Mickey Rourke (Bruiser Stone), Danny Devito (Deck Schifflet), Danny Glover (Judge Tyrone Kipler), Teresa Wright (Miss Birdie), Virginia Madsen (Jackie Lemancyzk), Roy Schieder (Wilfred Keeley), Randy Travis (Billy Porter), Johnny Whitworth (Donny Ray Black), Andrew Shue (Mr. Riker), Randy Travis (Juror), Dean Stockwell (Judge Harvey Hale); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Michael Douglas/Steven Reuther/Fred Fuchs; Paramount Pictures; 1997)

“The Rainmaker aside from being competently made is not something that stands out for being fresh.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Though this is probably the best scripted of John Grisham’s lawyer novels turned into a movie The Rainmaker aside from being competently made is not something that stands out for being fresh, as it serves as a primer for insurance fraud and a fantasy for believing there’s such an animal as an honest lawyer as a knight in shining armor. It is written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with an ongoing voiceover narration by Michael Herr–the voiceover is scripted by him.

It’s about idealistic novice Memphis lawyer, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a recent law-school graduate who desperately needs a job in a town swamped with lawyers. This forces him to take a job with a shady firm run by the sleazy “Bruiser” Stone (Mickey Rourke), where he learns about ambulance-chasing tactics from Deck Schifflet (Danny DeVito), the firm’s para-legal, who could never pass the bar exam but knows all the dirty tricks of the trade. The question is will Rudy, a prototypical clean-cut Grisham hero, succumb and be a scumbag or remain a nice guy.

Rudy’s association with Bruiser comes to a quick halt when the Feds catch up with the flamboyant shyster and he’s hauled off to jail.

Rudy opens his own office with Deck and his first case involves the impoverished, decent Dot Black’s (Mary Kay Place) teenager son Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth), who is dying of leukemia and his insurance company callously refused to pay for treatment. Rudy takes the case as a matter of principle, as against all odds of winning he sues the big insurance company for denying her claim–which soon turns into a wrongful death suit. In his first courtroom experience, he’s up against the insurance company’s cocky all-star legal team led by the cynical Leo F. Drummond–played for all the villainy by Jon Voight. The judge is played by Danny Glover, and sympathizes with the outgunned Rudy and tries to help from the confines of the bench.

In another contract-signing Rudy manages the will of his landlady, the elderly Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright), who wants to leave her estate to a televangelist because “his jet is getting old.” In a subplot story to show the limits of the law, he’s on the make for new cases in a hospital and gets involved with the battered teen Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), who is abused by her sadistic husband (Andrew Shue). Rudy has to coax her out of her fear to file for a divorce.

Rudy turns out be a crafty operator who recognizes the reality of his business and operates within those frameworks, though getting closer to his clients than he should. Playing by these rules of satisfying both his needs and his clients, he rises to the top of heap in no time flat against impossible odds.

It’s an old chestnut tale about the underdog in the end winning against the big boys despite given no chance (if you’ve seen one of those type of films, you’ve seen them all). Coppola’s straighforward mainstream story is a bundle of cliches wrapped around a group of archetypal lawyer types who seem plugged in to fit their movie role, and a story that could just as easily be transferred to a sports film and not lose anything in the change. Yet Damon and Danes have a good chemistry together, there are some nice cameos (Virginia Madsen as a surprise court witness for the plaintiff, Roy Scheider as the insurance company’s devil incarnate C.E.O., and country music star Randy Travis as the juror with the deep voice) and the spare direction by Francis Ford Coppola allows the film some entertaining moments. It is modeled after another lawyer film, Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder. Though not in the same league as that compelling classic.

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