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The Winemaker

By Robert L. Waring (November 1997)

The sixth adaptation of a John Grisham novel, The Rainmaker, is one of those rare legal films where the lawyers in the courtroom must ask permission from the judge to approach a witness and are admonished for failing to do so. It tells the story of a recent law school graduate with a conscience trying not to starve in Memphis. Along the way he makes a lot of mistakes, and the audience gets to see his skills develop. (This is a pseudo-realistic film.) The young lawyer, played by the previously unknown Matt Damon, goes to work for a gangster lawyer named Bruiser, played by barely recognizable Mickey Rourke. Damon takes on a large and evil insurance company with somewhat predictable results. (This is also a Hollywood film.) Jon Voight plays Damon’s nemesis, the slippery lead attorney for the insurance company. Danny Glover has fun playing a judge unsympathetic to insurance companies. Be forewarned that you should have a high tolerance for voice-over narration to enjoy this film, there is a lot of it. It partly makes up for some needed character development, but it does create many pauses in the flow.

It was a surprise that Francis Ford Coppola directed and wrote the screenplay (with Grisham) for The Rainmaker. When asked about his choice, Coppola recently responded that it was a big story with fascinating characters and no serial killers. (Do you suppose that’s how it was pitched in Hollywood?) It also seems he has made substantial recent investments in his winery, and as he has admitted in interviews, he needed the money. Curiously, Coppola has made a point of saying that The Rainmaker examines the notion of "selling out." In one crucial scene, Coppola even has Damon depart from the Grisham novel to publicly accuse his opponent of "selling out." Given the caliber of some of Coppola’s other films, one might suspect that life imitates art in this case. Be that as it may, it struck me that Paramount Pictures got its money’s worth from Coppola. A number of critics, including this one, are calling The Rainmaker the best adaptation of a Grisham novel to date. Coppola's skill is evident in the film, including his choices in background sound and music.

One reason for the film's success is its liberal use of humor. The novel was more comical than Grisham’s other works and Coppola has emphasized that in his adaptation. As tired as I am of seeing Danny DeVito on the screen, his interpretations of a short, ambulance chasing "para-lawyer" (his euphemism for a law school graduate who has not been admitted to the bar) are wonderfully funny.

As is typical of my viewing films with law themes in San Francisco, it was clear from the timing and extent of audience laughter that the theater contained a large number of attorneys. One scene in the movie was particularly telling. DeVito advises Damon to forget what he learned in law school and instead to follow three simple rules: "Fight for your clients. Refrain from stealing their money. Try not to lie." This is followed by Damon’s recitation of several lawyer jokes in narration, with a warning that lawyers should try to avoid becoming a lawyer joke themselves.

There seem to be two overarching themes/messages in The Rainmaker. The first is that a lawyer should not tolerate domestic violence. Although Grisham wrote the novel before the OJ verdict, The Rainmaker is in a sense a small redemption for a profession tainted (in some minds) by the efforts of Messrs. Cochran, et al. The film presents a lawyer who cares about domestic violence and does "the right thing," even if he does have the selfish motive of romance.

The second message is much the same as that of the recent film, Devil’s Advocate: the ultimate power of lawyering is ultimately corrupting. As the Damon says in narration, "Each time you try a case, you step over the line. You do it enough times and you forget where the line is." The solution presented by the film is reminiscent of the scene early in A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas Moore advises a young protege to abandon the corrupt business of the royal court (the law) and retire to a university to teach. Moore thinks the young man will be happier there. Apparently, Grisham and Coppola agree with that sentiment.

A final note: in light of the efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to destroy California criminal defense attorney Patrick Hallinan in a recent unsuccessful prosecution, it was ironic to see that he served as a legal advisor on the film. Bruiser, Damon’s boss, has some drug-dealing clients, which was Hallinan’s specialty. However, Bruiser chooses to run rather than wage the fight Hallinan did.

Click here for commentaryJudith Grant comments on The Rainmaker.

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