It's because nobody really wins. Grisham and Coppola (who also adapted
the story for the screen) attempt to show us a piece of life, and though
the lesson is a bit heavy-handed at times, it does capture the fact that
things just don't always work out perfectly in the end.
The story centers around Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a young lawyer in
Memphis who struggles to compete in a world of greed and corruption, alongside
his savvy colleague of questionable integrity, Deck Shifflet (Danny Devito).
In the three cases he's working on, Rudy involves himself very personally,
and teaches his lawyer-suspicious clients that there are some honest ones
out there. The principal case is that of the Blacks, a poor family suing
a huge insurance company called Great Benefit. The company denied their
claim for a bone marrow transplant for their adult son Donnie Ray (Johnny
Whitworth), who is dying of leukemia. While he is working on this case,
Rudy meets Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a woman who is regularly being beaten
by her alcoholic husband (Andrew Shue). And he rents an apartment from another
client, a rich, elderly woman (Teresa Wright) who wants to cut all her children
out of her will in favor of a TV evangelist.
There is some excellent acting in this film, notably by Mary Kay Place,
who plays Donnie Ray's mother Dot, and Red West as his mentally challenged
father. Place's exasperation turns to rage and finally to bitterness as
she tries to do what's best for her son, aware that a legal battle is exactly
what he doesn't need. The Great Benefit company is represented by Leo F.
Drummond (Jon Voigt), a smarmy, high-priced attorney who looks at Rudy as
a very small threat. Voigt's oily charm is unsettling.
The hurdles cleared by Rudy are not exactly insurmountable. It is made
to look like he is struggling against all odds, but the only real challenge
is that he's a young, inexperienced lawyer against an F. Lee Bailey type.
It might have been a little more believable if the company were not so obviously
guilty, filled with corruption from the top down. Another problem with the
movie is the sometimes ridiculous name symbolism. A major insurance company
called "Great Benefit" seems a little corny to me, as does a shady
lawyer named "Deck Shifflet," and a woman who is looked on by
her insurance company as insignificant, named "Dot Black." I mean,
come on. Also, for a serious film, there are some silly elements, such as
the old "bumping the patient in traction" gag.
Still, Damon's inept-but-honest style is charming, and there is enough
real-life tension to keep us interested. Devito does an excellent job as
a "para-lawyer" who sees dollar signs in the face of every accident
victim, and Danes is chilling in her various methods of dealing with her
If this is a movie about the fact that life is not black and white, some of the characters are a touch stereotypical. And if it's a movie about good versus evil, some viewers may feel cheated out of a proper resolution. But it's still worth a look if only for some excellent acting. ****
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