Rainmaker, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been several years since I've read a book by John Grisham (I believe the last one was The Client). After three or four of Grisham's novels, I grew tired of the predictable repetitiveness and contrived suspense of the narratives. As a result, the intelligence and subtlety of The Rainmaker took me by surprise. I don't know if this is because the novel is better than any of the prolific lawyer-turned-author's previous efforts, or if Francis Ford Coppola has performed a near-miracle in transforming the written pages into a screenplay. Whatever the case, The Rainmaker stands above any other filmed Grisham adaptation, including A Time to Kill, the former holder of that title.

In order to make an appealing movie with a lawyer as the protagonist, it's necessary to come up with a villain who can make even an attorney look good. In this case, Grisham has found one -- a big-time, sleazy insurance company. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the main character in The Rainmaker has his heart in the right place. Sure, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) may be an ambulance-chaser, but that's only an unfortunate fact of life. He's one of the few who doesn't allow the realities of practicing law to corrupt his sense of ethics.

Rudy went to law school because he believed all the myths about helping people. But, because his family had no high-placed connections, graduation found him waiting tables to pay off his student loans, rather than going to work for a prestigious firm. Eventually, Rudy hooks up with the Memphis-based ambulance-chasing outfit of Bruiser Stone (Mickey Roarke), where he's partnered with Deck Shiffler (Danny DeVito), a "para-lawyer" who knows the ropes but has failed the bar exam six times. Rudy is sent to the local hospital to search for new clients. What he finds instead is a young woman, Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), who has been severely beaten by her husband. The attraction between Rudy and Kelly is immediate and obvious, but she's afraid to file for divorce for fear that her husband will kill her. Pretty soon, Rudy and Deck feel the heat as a Federal probe closes in on Bruiser, so, together with only about $10,000 between them, they open up their own office.

Meanwhile, Rudy is working on his first big case: suing an insurance company for failing to make good on a claim owed to his client, a leukemia patient, Donnie Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth). When the inevitable happens and Donnie Ray dies, it becomes a wrongful death suit, with Rudy representing Donnie Ray's mother, Dot (Mary Kay Place), against a host of high-priced suits led by Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). But the judge, Tyrone Kipler (Danny Glover), is a fair man, and allows Rudy some latitude in presenting his case. As Rudy puts it, "I'm alone, I'm… outgunned… but I'm right."

The Rainmaker keeps the in-trial showmanship to a minimum. While it's virtually impossible to film a courtroom drama where there aren't at least a few tricks and unexpected legal maneuvers, The Rainmaker does a good job of downplaying these so that they're never too difficult to swallow. (Besides, what fun would it be if there were no surprises whatsoever?) The ending is also low-key, with no embarrassing Scent of a Woman display. At no time does the courtroom erupt into spontaneous applause, nor does judge Danny Glover ever have to threaten to clear the room. As an added bonus, Rudy and Deck are actually shown acting nervous and inexperienced in court. They make numerous gaffes, occasionally stumble over their words (or their feet), and generally appear like first-timers, which they are.

In a recent interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer's Steven Rea, Coppola stated that he was tired of being labeled a "gun for hire," a term used to refer to him when describing his involvement in the studio projects Jack and The Rainmaker. Coppola noted that he wrote and directed The Rainmaker because he was engrossed by the book and saw parallels between Rudy's struggles as a young lawyer and his own early years as a film maker. Coppola also emphasized that he loved making the movie, and didn't see it as just a source of quick cash.

For the most part, The Rainmaker is really a character study of Rudy. Everything in the film – his relationship with Kelly, his courtroom struggles, and his growing involvement with his clients – is designed to highlight his development as an individual. In the lead role, Matt Damon does a fine job portraying the uncertainty of someone who believes he has the moral high ground, but realizes that his lack of experience could lose the case. Danny DeVito is perfect as the more cynical, financially-driven Deck, providing occasional moments of comedy to break The Rainmaker's tension. Claire Danes is heartbreaking as Kelly, the young wife who has lost all of her dreams in a sea of pain and bruises. The supporting cast is solid, with turns from an uncredited Danny Glover, Virginia Madsen as a witness for the plaintiff, Teresa Wright as Rudy's landlady, and Roy Scheider as the CEO of the insurance company.

The Rainmaker is not without missteps – for example, the latter stages of Rudy and Kelly's relationship seem rushed, as does the ending. Overall, however, this is a well-made, absorbing motion picture that seems a lot shorter than its 140-minute running length. Unlike many of the other films based on a Grisham book, this one is interested in telling a story rather than ambushing the audience with cheap contrivances. It's an intelligent and thoughtful approach, and the focus on character and legitimate drama makes this a surprisingly-strong late-November release.

Rainmaker, The (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1