Grisham Gets Coppola-ed for The Rainmaker ; Figgis’ Take on the Original Sin

Grisham Inc.

Gets Coppola-ed

The one-man cottage industry known as John Grisham gets its first artistic upgrade from beach reading to classy, first-cabin filmmaking with The Rainmaker . With Francis Ford Coppola as director and a marvelous cast of dedicated and seasoned actors on board, this is the best Grisham yet. I’ve never liked any of his books or the contrived movies made from them, but this one is riveting, believable and well written enough to stand on its own.

Every Grisham plot has the same David-versus-Goliath theme about an idealistic, inexperienced hero who champions the cause of an underdog while challenging some monolithic giant in the name of justice. This time, the little engine that could is an impoverished, clean-cut third-year Memphis law student (played by flavor-of-the-month Vanity Fair cover boy Matt Damon) who finds himself on the side of a poor family whose son has died of leukemia because his insurance company refused to pay for a bone marrow transplant. At first it seems like a no-win situation, but the corrupt judge in the powerful insurance company’s pocket (Dean Stockwell) is a chain-smoker who coughs himself to death, and his replacement is a rookie lawyer’s dream-a black liberal Moses figure (Danny Glover) who is on the side of losers and little Davids.

Still, the kid is in over his head. His chief rival is a litigator for the defense (Jon Voight, in his best role in years) who is slick, arrogant, brilliant and ready to devour his young adversary in court like the whale that ate Jonah. Mr. Voight has a staff of defense attorneys with 100 years of legal experience, while Mr. Damon has only the help of one assistant, a grubby ambulance chaser (Danny DeVito) who has flunked the bar exam six times.

The stage is set for a battle of wills-integrity versus greed, the disenfranchised versus corporate power. While Mr. DeVito scrounges through garbage cans for evidence and tracks down missing witnesses, Mr. Damon faces the sharks in court and at the same time complicates his life by falling in love with another client (Claire Danes), an abused housewife who murders her husband in self-defense. It may sound like Hollywood hokum, but Mr. Coppola delves deeper into character development and scene-by-scene plot analysis than any of the previous directors of Grisham potboilers have taken the time to do. The result is that The Rainmaker challenges the emotions, drawing the viewer in.

It all makes more sense than The Client or The Firm or the idiotic A Time to Kill . From the lowest ranks of the judicial system to the upper echelons of moral bankruptcy, the human side of little people victimized by legal problems is in sharper focus. This is due, in no small part, to the innocence and clear-eyed directness of the charismatic young star, Mr. Damon, and to the contributions of the stellar cast surrounding him like protective relatives. Mr. Voight is especially forceful as the symbol of an immoral insurance conglomerate more interested in rising premiums than in dying clients. Mary Kay Place, as the grieving plaintiff; Mickey Rourke, as an oily lawyer who is in trouble with the law himself; Virginia Madsen, as a key witness; and Teresa Wright, as a dotty but lovable eccentric who wills her fortune to a TV evangelist, add humor and pathos to the matrix of Mr. Coppola’s excellent screenplay.

Best of all, there is no conventional happy ending in which the pieces fit together neatly and implausibly. Quite an accomplishment, really, in the overworked courtroom-drama genre, which rarely delivers much freshness or surprise.

Figgis Fingers

The Original Sin

One Night Stand is another surprise-a film about the impact of infidelity on two marriages that seem otherwise stable-that is funny, wrenching and deeply affecting. I don’t know why I find this unusual. The director-writer is Mike Figgis, whose devastating Leaving Las Vegas still haunts me like the smell of cologne in the pocket of an old polo coat left behind by a long-lost love. But his comfortable, controlled writing and sensitive direction are richly enhanced by five actors from whom I expected nothing. They dance an erotic tango around the oldest sin in the book to music that could put an ache in the most cynical of hearts.

Mr. Figgis described it accurately as three short movies separated by one-year intervals. Wesley Snipes plays a 35-year-old Hollywood director of TV commercials with a wife (alluring Ming-Na Wen from The Joy Luck Club ) and two kids back in Los Angeles who spends one night in New York doing business and visiting an old friend (Robert Downey Jr.) who is gay and H.I.V.-positive. Trapped in traffic, he misses his flight home, attends a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet with a friendly woman (Nastassja Kinski) he met earlier in the day, saves her from a mugging and spends the night in the extra bed in her hotel room. By 3 A.M., only one bed is empty, and we have a real situation. In the year that follows, he is still so guilty and nostalgic about that one-night fling that his career wanes, his friends irritate him and his marriage sours. One deviation from the norm turns out to be life-altering.

One year later, he’s back in New York, where Mr. Downey is now dying from full-blown AIDS, and he again meets the woman, who turns out to be the wife of Mr. Downey’s brother (Kyle MacLachlan). Both couples are thrown reluctantly together through an emotional crisis and the eventual funeral of the man who accidentally brought them together. The third section of the film shows the aftermath of the toll that so much sexual tension has taken on four lives, and the denouement will knock your socks off. Mr. Snipes gives the most vulnerable and intelligent performance of his career, but so does everyone else. (Mr. Downey looks cadaverous, which enhances his work but is alarming to look at.)

The result is a mature, provocative and immensely disturbing look at how casual sex can be like the proverbial pebble in the pond of still water. The widening circles it creates in a relationship can change the surface until nothing is ever the same again. One Night Stand is therefore a characteristically beautifully composed, but uncharacteristically subtle valedictory on infidelity that proves grown-ups are no different from children who act on impulse-they all suffer the consequences for their mistakes. The performances are flawless, yet the film’s finest achievement is its expert balancing of the power of passion and the frailties of the human heart. A rich, complex, enormously entrancing piece of work that is not to be missed.

It’s No Triumph;

Pale Pimpernel

After the joy and thrills I got from Side Show , I suspected the Broadway musicals that followed would seem second-rate. I was right. The ill-advised Triumph of Love is a coy, campy and diabolically dopey update of a 1732 farce by Pierre Marivaux. It involves, to no avail, a cross-dressing princess (Susan Egan), a lunk-headed philosophy student (Christopher Sieber) and his coldblooded Aunt Hesione (Betty Buckley), and the ambitious, anal-retentive Uncle Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham). It’s supposed to take place in ancient Greece, but everyone is dressed like they’re on their way to a party at Marie Antoinette’s. The score is unbearably nonmusical and the songs, by Jeffrey Stock and Susan Birkenhead, all sound exactly alike. The set is an elaborate green topiary the color of lime Jell-O that makes you feel like you’re a seasick passenger on the Titanic . Mouthing such horrors as “Who stood in for Midas/ When Midas got arthritis,” the cast fakes false merriment throughout. Ms. Buckley, whose shrieking usually reminds me of sharp talons scraping the surface of cold marble, screeches less than usual-thank you, Jesus-but Mr. Abraham can’t sing at all. At one point, the plucky Ms. Egan turns to the audience and says, “I love being in this.” Not too much, I hope.

Savaged by the critics, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a soggy, moribund musical version of the famous movie with Leslie Howard, a Dickensian spy story set at the time of the French Revolution about a British aristocrat who saves victims from the guillotine with the aid of elaborate disguises. He’s no Leslie Howard, but as both the simpering, limp-wristed dandy and the brave, virile Pimpernel, newcomer Douglas Sills is the show’s majestic-voiced superstar. Christine Andreas is his lovely, lilting, but largely wasted wife, and Terrence Mann is the villain, singing through his nose and looking so bored he might as well be walking in his sleep. Despite glittering costumes, fencing duels and all the chandeliers from every bus and truck tour of The Phantom of the Opera to light the stage, it remains a dark and dour occasion-slick, polished and irrelevant as the music they play in French elevators.

Grisham Gets Coppola-ed for The Rainmaker ; Figgis’ Take on the Original Sin