Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:20 - Released 11/21/97

Americans have a love-hate relationship with lawyers. We're annoyed by their TV commercials, but we thank goodness they're there if we need them. It is this conflict of emotions which is illustrated in Francis Ford Coppola's movie based on the novel by John Grisham, who has turned out many law-related thrillers, such as The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client. This is a movie where the "good guys" win, but one still feels like crying at the end. Why is this?

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 abusive husband.

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. ****

Copyright 1997 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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