Preposterous Runaway Jury Is Guns and Poses

Runaway Jury , the latest in an endless stream of expensive, bloated, all-star legal thrillers by billionaire hack-writing machine John Grisham to be processed into celluloid Velveeta, gives new meaning to the word “preposterous.” A lot of famous faces populate the courtroom in this overplotted and farfetched tale of jury-tampering, but they and the horse they rode in on are all so mired in illogical, head-scratching incoherence, they need lawyers of their own.

In New Orleans, a lunatic goes on a shooting spree, gunning down an entire office of innocent people. Two years later, the widow of one of the victims sues a big gun manufacturer called Vicksburg Firearms for providing the murder weapons that wiped out her husband (Dylan McDermott, in a brief prologue cameo) and all of his officemates. Enter the controversy, the complications and the stars. The prosecuting attorney is Dustin Hoffman, a shameless cracker-barrel showoff who mewls his way through a Tennessee Williams drawl that would embarrass both Boss Finlay and Big Daddy, and resorts to corny tricks like spilling mustard on his tie so the jury will think he’s down-home as a buttermilk biscuit. The defense attorney is Bruce Davison, but he’s just a puppet in a faded ice-cream suit from studio wardrobe whose strings are pulled by the despicable gun lobby. The real adversary that Hoffman has to beat to win the case for his client and set a precedent for gun control is Gene Hackman, as an evil cutthroat trial “manipulator” hired by the gun company to rig the jury and throw the case.

Cut to an unemployed part-time student (John Cusack) who gets a jury-duty summons. Like almost everybody else on the planet, he would rather amputate his big toe than perform his so-called “civic duty” locked in a jury box watching his career, job and life go down the drain for as long as it takes to reach a verdict. (Why are so many innocent people sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit? Because hungry, exhausted, sequestered juries tired of cold coffee, stale sandwiches and no sleep will vote for any easy verdict just to go home.) Despite his humorous attempts to get off (sex-change surgery does seem a bit radical), Cusack lands on the jury of the gun-control trial and becomes known as “Juror No. 9.” (This is totally absurd, but more about that later.) Before anyone can sympathize with this witty, traumatized fish out of water, his behavior turns odd and the screen is overwhelmed by red herrings. As you can well imagine, it also begins to stink.

Outside the court, Hackman controls the trial from a high-tech war room, sending hidden mikes and cameras into the fray while his team of eggheads analyze, hound, stalk, shadow and videotape the jurors, rooting out their weaknesses for blackmail purposes. Inside the jury room, Cusack does some manipulating himself, while his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) makes phone calls demanding $10 million from both Hackman and Hoffman, promising she can sway the jury either way. The movie makes a hair-raising point that serving on a jury is worse than going to the dentist for a root canal.

Hackman’s thugs break into the jurors’ homes, investigate their medical records, unseal their criminal records and ransack their computers, driving one woman to attempt suicide and threatening to expose another juror who has AIDS. When all else fails, they burn down their apartments. One by one, the members of this cockeyed jury find their lives in torment and their futures bleak unless they vote the right way. But which way is that? Hoffman pleads for American justice, the defense-team rats plead Second Amendment rights to carry firearms for self-protection, and the Cusack-Weisz team representing greedy financial gain without moral conscience plays both sides against each other to see who will give in and come up with the extortion money. The elements for a gripping and controversial entertainment are present, but the script grows more ridiculous with the introduction of each new issue, eschewing depth and perspective for flashy style and confusing platitudes. Finally, when Cusack and Weisz reveal their true motives in bringing down Hackman, the happy-ending corn is almost comical.

But none of this matters, really, because of one disastrous mistake from which the movie never recovers. The Cusack character has moved to New Orleans from another part of the country. He hasn’t been in town six months. He has no voter’s record, he owns no property, he has a string of aliases, he lives under an assumed name. In reality, there is no way a man like that could ever possibly receive a jury-duty notice in the mail. And even if all systems failed and the New Orleans justice system was run by criminals and morons, he would still have no control over which trial or which jury, if any, he would end up serving on. The term “poetic license,” even for the sake of Hollywood escapism, doesn’t even begin to cover it. It took four screenwriters to dream up this much fakery. What they got paid was probably more than the annual salary of a Supreme Court judge.

In the John Grisham novel from which this nonsense is derived, the Goliath on trial was the tobacco industry. Those were the days when Presidential candidate Bob Dole was sounding off about how he believed that rumors about cancer-risking nicotine addiction were exaggerated by left-wing Democrats. Big Tobacco has since had its day in court and lost big time. The movie had to move on to less dated, equally well-organized and financed but more hated 21st-century demons. Pedophile priests would have made a hotter topic for a lawsuit, but they don’t have a union. So guns it is, plus enough distractions and New Orleans scenery to stretch the labored plot into a two-hour movie-a chase scene here, a pointless interlude in a voodoo shop there, some vicious violence between Ms. Weisz and the villains, and more shenanigans in the jury room than even the most gullible audience could ever deem possible. (Just get on a jury where they guzzle bourbon under the table and blow cigarette smoke in the faces of allergy sufferers, and watch what happens.) By the time director Gary Fleder gets around to the much-anticipated confrontation between Hoffman and Hackman in the men’s room, it’s an hour and a half too late.

I saw this movie the same week I received another frustrating, maddeningly intrusive summons for jury duty myself-for the week after Christmas, yet. Stripped of any feelings of patriotic duty and fearing for my life after seeing Runaway Jury , I am seriously thinking about leaving the country.

Tune in Radio

Radio is one of those well-made, well-meaning true stories about courage and overcoming adversity that (1) makes me feel good about the human race, and then (2) makes me worry about whether anyone will ever see it. The year is 1976; the place is Anderson, S.C. Jimmy Carter is running for President and other things are happening, too. We hear about them from a variety of radios wheeled through the shady streets of town in the supermarket shopping cart of a harmless, good-hearted, often ridiculed and deeply misunderstood town character named James Robert Kennedy. The warm, decent and sometimes heartbreaking ways his qualities are explored by Cuba Gooding Jr. make for one of the year’s most captivating performances.

One rare source of pleasure in the otherwise wrenching life of this mentally challenged lost child is his occasional pause at the high-school football field to watch the local team practice. One day on his rounds, some bullies tape him to the plumbing pipes in one of the school’s maintenance sheds, where he is rescued, frightened and in shock, by the football coach, Harold Jones (Ed Harris). Coach Jones extends a hand in friendship to the fellow he nicknames “Radio” because of his passion for all radios, large and small. Coach Jones gives Radio a job helping out on the playing field, then encourages him to attend classes with the other kids. The football team promptly adopts him as a mascot, but so much intimacy between a respected coach and the “town retard” does not sit well with some of the more affluent and bigoted citizens at the local barber shop, and even causes a few hurtful misunderstandings with the coach’s resentful teenage daughter, Sarah (Mary Helen Jones), and baffled but supportive wife, Linda (a small but important supporting performance by Debra Winger). When Radio’s loving, long-suffering mother dies and leaves him homeless, the coach becomes his surrogate father and adviser, which leads to many problems at home and school. But as Mike Tollin’s solid direction and Mike Rich’s honest, no-frills screenplay build to the ultimate rehabilitation of Radio and the realization that people who look, sound and seem “different” can still make valuable contributions to our society, the film has an undeniable emotional impact.

At the end of the movie, we meet the real Radio, now in his 50′s-a happy, functioning and popular coach at the same South Carolina high school where he was once abused, and a cherished and vital member of his community. At the screening I attended, people were sobbing and applauding at the same time. This is good. But will it fly? Without the kind of noisy, numbing action today’s audiences crave, I’ll be curious to see how a film as sensitive and caring will do at the box office. Certainly it’s a feather in the cap of Cuba Gooding Jr. Walking sideways, flashing a broken-toothed grin and struggling to make words out of grunts and plosives, some cynics will call his a trick performance from the trunk where Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman keep their old ticks and stutters, but I was reminded more of Mickey Rooney in the unforgettable film Bill , with Dennis Quaid. With his goofy sweetness, docile uncertainty and indestructible determination to succeed, I found Mr. Gooding as unique and inspiring as Radio himself.

Meg’s Career Turn

Brutally savaged at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for any number of justifiable reasons, Jane Campion’s In the Cut , a lurid descent into sex and violence with Meg Ryan ditching her clean-cut Doris Day image for full-frontal nudity, has finally arrived on a screen near you. It is nasty, gruesome, pointlessly kinky and gratuitously awful. But although I wrote about it from Toronto at some length, a few extra comments seem warranted. At 41, with a string of recent flops and her fans reluctant to accept her in anything more serious than When Harry Met Sally , Ms. Ryan’s lust for a right-angle career turn is understandable. But the role of a conflicted, emotionally dead, sexually repressed teacher in one of New York’s sleaziest neighborhoods who goes on an erotic safari with a crude cop (Mark Ruffalo) investigating a wave of serial killings-well, it’s not my idea of a positive move. Some of the sex scenes in director Campion’s initial cut were so graphic they had to be cut from the current release print (maybe that explains the title, since nothing else does). What’s left leaves no body part to the imagination; for women who have been protesting double standards for years, Mr. Ruffalo shows off his family kumquats, too. In interviews, Ms. Ryan reveals that the director bathed the closed set in exotic incense to enhance the mood for the fornication scenes, while Mr. Ruffalo gamely admits the result thrilled his wife and did wonders for their love life. But Ms. Ryan’s ugly brown wig, brown contact lenses and total absence of makeup only make her look haggard, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is criminally wasted in the role of her sluttish half-sister, who seems to live (for no explicit reason) above a brothel, a strip joint or some other similar house of sleaze, and whose severed head ends up (for an equally inexplicable reason) in a plastic bag. Ms. Ryan’s character is an educated gal, but she’ll go to bed with anybody. When she sees the same three-of-spades tattoo on Mr. Ruffalo’s character’s wrist that she spotted on the faceless serial killer, she suspects she’s being roto-tilled in the sheets by the killer, but the terror turns her on. The list of suspects grows while the plot’s plausibility diminishes. The sound track plays “Que Sera, Sera.” Everybody is soaked with carnal sweat. The camera goes out of focus. Bloody organs fall out of a laundromat on the rinse cycle. It all ends up in a lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge. I predict her fans will avoid this disaster in legions, but who knows? In the Cut may prove, once and for all, if everyone still wants to have what Meg Ryan is having.