The Rainmaker (1997)
“They were totally unqualified to try the case of a lifetime… but every underdog has his day.”
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes
Synopsis: An idealistic young lawyer and his cynical partner take on a powerful law firm representing a corrupt insurance company.
Matt Damon is a bit like the modern era’s Jimmy Stewart in the way he has mastered the ability to portray both good men and bad with equal skill and believability. Damon only has to don a pair of glasses to transform his all-American good looks into an awkward geekiness, and his boyish looks possess an inherent vulnerability that has us rooting for him when the odds are stacked against him, as they are in The Rainmaker, a sincere but cliched adaptation of the John Grisham novel of the same name. Damon even has Teresa Wright — Stewart’s leading lady in It’s a Wonderful Life — as a slightly dotty landlady in his supporting cast.
Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a young lawyer whom the film is quick to distance from all those slick, self-important champions of the courtroom Hollywood normally provides us with. Rudy works in a bar as he struggles to pass the bar exam, and his entire possessions are stacked on top of his rusty old car when he wins a job with legally dubious ambulance chaser Bruiser Stone (a pre-boxing career Mickey Rourke, with his looks still intact) because he has no chance of winning employment with one of those big, glossy law firms Grisham normally writes about. Stone’s legally questionable activities are about to come back to bite him thanks to an FBI investigation, something that his associate Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito) is perceptive enough to see coming. DeVito’s character has the kind of name that no honest lawyer should be saddled with, but then he isn’t a bona fide lawyer, having failed his bar exams six times. He’s more of a legal handyman, prepared to do the legwork for those more skilled in the courtroom and, seeing the writing on the wall for Stone, he proposes to Baylor that they start their own law firm, a two-bit operation based in a near derelict office in the wrong part of Memphis.
Baylor has two cases. The first is the drawing up of a will for Colleen Birdsong (Teresa Wright), a sweet old lady whom he is attempting to gently persuade out of leaving her modest belongings to a TV reverend (‘his jet is getting old,’ she explains to Baylor). The second is the representation of Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth), a young man dying of leukaemia. Donny lives with his parents, Dot (Mary Kay Place) and Buddy (Red West). They’re dirt poor, the kind of people who have a stone pig and scrap car in their overgrown front yard, but they possess that nobility commonly found amongst the dirt poor in Hollywood movies, but only infrequently encountered in reality. Despite their low income, Dot had made regular payments into an insurance policy sold to her by a representative of the insurance giant Great Benefit, but when her son fell ill they refused to pay up despite his case falling within the boundaries of the policy.
Thus begins the David vs Goliath aspect of The Rainmaker, the plot which forms the main narrative strand of the movie, although Baylor’s representation of Miss Birdsong, and his deepening relationship with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a battered wife whom the young lawyer meets as he studies for his exams in the canteen of a local hospital. While these sub-plots flesh out the film’s story and provide it with a wealth of well-drawn characters, they add little else to the story other than to pad out the movie’s running time to an undeserved 135 minutes.
Despite having no courtroom experience, Baylor determines to bring the insurance giant to justice, and his sense of purpose is only deepened by Donny’s death, which could have been avoided had he received the bone marrow transplant his insurance pay-out should have covered. However, if he’s to succeed he must overcome the experience and underhand tactics of hotshot lawyer Leo Drummond (Jon Voight) and his team. Now, Drummond is a typical Hollywood lawyer: good hair, expensive suits and a cynical know-it-all attitude — Drummond’s got it all, which means, of course, that he’s ripe for a fall.
The Rainmaker is surprisingly old-fashioned when it comes to the twists and turns of the court case. Even allowing for artistic — or should that be commercial? — licence, the unfolding court case bears little relation to events in the real world. It’s inconceivable, for example, that an experienced lawyer such as Drummond would ever ask a question of the plaintiff to which he didn’t know the answer, but when he asks Dot Black what she intends to do with the $10 million she is suing the insurance company for, she snaps back ‘give it all to charity’ thus immediately scoring points with the jury for her side. A last minute witness is produced, appearing at the doors to the courtroom as if she had just that moment materialised; last minute, undisclosed evidence is also produced, much to the outrage of the defence, and finally permitted as evidence following the discovery by the prosecution of an obscure precedent. All that’s missing is a witness box confession and the judge despairingly throwing the gavel over his shoulder when the tumultuous crowd fails to respond to his frantic hammering.
Despite this over-reliance on genre cliches, The Rainmaker does provide an acceptable level of entertainment. It’s true that it’s cluttered with extraneous detail (Lord only knows what the rumoured original 6 hour cut would have been like), but every now and then a scene comes along that galvanises the plot and draws the audience in. Most of these involve the thrust and parry of new boy Baylor and arrogant hot-shot Drummond, and Voight is wonderfully smarmy as the unscrupulous old hand who’s not above resorting to phone-tapping to get the result he wants.
While there are no real surprises in The Rainmaker, it’s probably worth a look if you’re in an undemanding frame of mind and can overlook the fact that it was written by the same man who gave the world The Godfather movies. Perhaps, like Rudy Baylor, Francis Ford Coppola needed money badly enough to take on any project. Either way, he was punching below his weight, which is perhaps why there’s no real sense of integrity about any of it, just the overwhelming feeling of a number of highly skilled and versatile professionals simply going through the motions.
(Reviewed 22nd June 2013)