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There is a certain amount of serendipity with the release of this DVD special edition of 1997’s The Rainmaker so close on the heels of Michael Moore’s 2007 Sicko. The Rainmaker plays like a dramatized version of the controversial documentary, likewise dealing with the moral bankruptcy of the American healthcare industry and the inevitable David vs. Goliath clash.
Once upon a time, John Grisham dominated both the literary and film world. No sooner would his books hit stores than they were snatched up by ravenous studios. He was the J.K. Rowling of the 90’s without the silly, costumed fans. Though he’s mostly faded into the limelight, several of his book-to-screen adaptations remain terrific films (The Firm, A Time to Kill). The Rainmaker also deserves to be placed high on any such list. A wonderfully slow, methodically paced film, The Rainmaker remains a subtle gem.
What an odd, little, irregular film The Rainmaker is. There is nothing epic or bombastic about it. It does not call attention to itself or its creators. If you miss the opening credits, there is little to clue you in later that this unassuming courtroom drama is the work of master auteur Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation). But that fact does account for its near flawlessness.
Rudy Baylor (pre Good Will Hunting Matt Damon) is the sort of lawyer the Boy Scouts would be proud of, with clean cut morals and appearance. He’s a poor kid who barely scraped through a Tennessee law school and now faces an uncertain future. Unable to find a job and growing increasingly desperate, Rudy agrees to work for the shady Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), a flashy fraudster — it’s hardly accidental that a shark tank is installed in Bruiser’s office — who lets his paralegal Deck (Danny DeVito) do all the work. Deck shows Rudy the ins and outs of the underbelly of the criminal justices system, namely ambulance chasing. When Bruiser’s operation is shut down by the Feds who are investigating him for fraud, Deck and Rudy open their own firm.
One of their clients is Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), whose son is dying of cancer and has been refused treatment by their insurance company. Little do they know that their rag-tag storefront office will soon be involved in the fight for its life against a titanic insurance company and their phalanx of lawyers, led by the amoral and elegantly sleazy Jon Voight. While trying to deal with his first, and potentially the largest case of his career, Rudy also tries to juggle a relationship with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a young woman persistently beaten by her abusive husband.
Coppola, who wrote (Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket scribe Michael Herr also contributed) and directed the film, arguably made the most realistic of all Grisham's adaptations. Oddly enough, this is not a film gushing with love for the legal profession, but is instead a story about dignity and self-respect vs. compromise and selling out. Rudy is a man stuck in a profession he thought he admired but, in fact, makes his skin crawl. It is to Coppola’s credit that he takes a movie almost utterly devoid of action and transforms it, even during its most rote courtroom moments, into a film of surprising tension and exhilaration.
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