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Film: Ambulance chasers

Movies | Grisham and Coppola put the U.S. legal system on trial

Issue: "School shooting," Dec. 13, 1997

Jerry Maguire is Hollywood's patron saint. The silver screen is filled with stories about professionals standing alone against The System. Their lesson: Don't sell out. Stick to your principles.Be true to yourself. Then say to your enemies, "Show me the money." Who better than the movie industry to teach the world how to deal with sharks?

The latest postmodern paladin is Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), the hero of The Rainmaker. This movie is the marriage of John Grisham's book to Francis Ford Coppola's direction. Their offspring is strangely Capraesque; it might have been titled Mr. Smith Takes the Bar Exam.

Rudy is a Middle American salt-of-the-earth kind of guy whose first job after law school is with (who else?) a bunch of crooked attorneys. These guys spend their days trying to get hefty settlements for accident victims. A lawyer named "Bruiser" (Mickey Rourke) recruits him to become a rainmaker-someone who makes dollars fall from the sky. Danny DeVito gives lessons in the fine art of ambulance chasing. Rudy turns into a man who is half Jimmy Stewart and half Jim Rockford.

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Most of the movie deals with two of the rookie trial lawyer's first cases. One, which furnishes the movie its love interest, involves his trying to get a young battered wife (Claire Danes) to leave her abusive husband. In the other he fights an evil insurance company over a rejected claim. Danny Glover plays the judge handling the latter case in a self-referential take on the movie cliché of obligatory black authority figures.

The insurance subplot takes up much of the movie as our hero fights against a big, bad $1,000-an-hour law firm (with Jon Voight doing a great job as the team's sneering leader). There's a heartstring puller in there about a boy dying of leukemia because the company won't pay his parents' claims. This screams with populist overtones (that aren't often seen on the screen) about a good Southern boy standing up for justice against a pack of Yankee jackals.

This all sounds one-dimensional, but Mr. Coppola is a master at making such material look good on the big screen. Twenty-five years ago he single-handedly revived mafia chic by turning a pulp novel called The Godfather into the year's best picture.

The populist Rainmaker resembles his underrated classic of man-versus-the-auto-industry called Tucker more than other Grisham pics like The Pelican Brief or The Client. A lesser director would have made this into a disaster.

The Rainmaker, like other lawyer movies from Liar, Liar to Night Falls on Manhattan, relies on a simplistic white hat/black hat look at the legal profession. Attorneys are usually either tireless champions of the oppressed or money-grubbing swine who would sell out their mothers for an easy buck.

This movie is probably as reliable a picture of trial lawyers as the Corleone saga is of organized crime. Still, it makes a valid point (albeit a confused one) about a legal system that in many respects is strong in laws but weak in principles.

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