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The Rainmaker

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Rainmaker

Starring: Matt Damon, Danny DeVito
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 133 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Claire Danes, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place, Dean Stockwell, Teresa Wright, Virginia Madsen, Mickey Rourke, Andrew Shue

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1.  Edward Johnson-Ott review follows movie reviewmovie review
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
3.  Harvey Karten read the review ---
4.  Walter Frith read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
5.  Andrew Hicks read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

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 man.

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. 00.

Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott

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