Just in case you might confuse it with the '50s Burt Lancaster film, the helpful folks at Paramount have added the legal-beagle author's name to the title of their new film "John Grisham's The Rainmaker."
Actually, as long as we're into long, clumsy titles, it probably should be called "Francis Ford Coppola's John Grisham's The Rainmaker." Most of what is good about this movie has been added by the famed director, and its greatest flaws come in the places where he was most faithful to what is undoubtedly Grisham's worst book.
Coppola, who also wrote the script, wisely skips the book's first 200 pages, in which the lead character, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), whines about the lack of opportunity for law students. The movie takes care of that in about two sentences and leaps right into Rudy's hiring by sleazy ambulance chaser Bruiser Stone (a nearly unrecognizable Mickey Rourke).
Bruiser has his associate Deck Schifflet (Danny DeVito) show Rudy the ropes. But Rudy has brought along his best case, that of a dying teenager, Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth), whose insurance company has denied his claim for leukemia treatments.
Rudy meets his opponent, a $1,000-an-hour shyster named Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight), when he ends up having to show up in court before he has even obtained his license to practice. Leo smoothly offers to witness as the judge (Dean Stockwell) administers the oath.
The other main subplot involves Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a young battered wife Rudy is taken with while trolling the hospital with Deck for accident victims - why chase the ambulance when you know where it's going?
The plot of "The Rainmaker" wouldn't make the cut on a good television legal show like "Law and Order" or "L.A. Law." The bad guys are not only bad, (Coppola made the Mob look more appealing in "The Godfather"), they are, in the words of a poorly written letter they send back to a victim, "Stupid, stupid, stupid."
So is this plot. Deck and Rudy have unbelievable luck, which the movie tries to make look like detective work, but it's clear that things just fall into their laps, including a disgruntled ex-employee (Virginia Madsen) who just happens to know everything. The dueling political statements in the lawyers' summations are jarringly out of place in what has been built up as a personal tragedy, particularly Drummond's ludicrous argument supposedly coming from a slick operator.
There are also some real-world problems - a judge is appointed to fill a vacancy left by a death within hours, not months; and there are apparently no insurance bureaus left in the states of Tennessee and Ohio.
Still, "The Rainmaker" is very watchable, thanks to a smooth directing job that captures the flavor of the tattered side of Memphis, and to a bevy of bit parts played by big names.
Mary Kay Place is superb as the mother of the dying boy, Rourke is great fun and Danes inspires pity. Danny Glover is charming in an unbilled turn as the trial judge, Teresa Wright is hilarious as the old biddy who thinks renting Rudy a room makes him her yard slave, and Madsen is a knockout as the unbalanced witness for the plaintiff. Roy Scheider and country singer Randy Travis also have cameos.
As for the big roles, Damon is solid, though to really make this role sing would have required a little more Jimmy Stewart. DeVito is lovably slimy in the type of role we've seen him in many times. Voight is good for the first half of the picture, but the formerly laconic actor has been hamming it up a lot lately, and he succumbs to that temptation in the later scenes here, too.
Elmer Bernstein's bluesy score helps set the right mood, and Coppola's focus on the humor in the characters and the Southern mood goes a long way, before the plot bogs the proceedings down.
Coppola raised a pulp classic to near-Shakespearian heights with his "Godfather" movies. He can't quite make a Capraesque silk purse out of this sow's ear, but it might be compared to a good leather wallet - functional and comfortable, but hardly an heirloom.