Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Rainmaker 
Summary: An outstanding cast fills Coppola's by-the-books John Grisham adaptation. it's just too bad the characters are so thinly written.
135 min. | PG-13
Director & Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes, Jon Voight
Studio: Constellation Films, American Zoetrope | Distribution: Paramount Pictures
The ’90s were something of a lost decade for one of film’s great directors. After Francis Ford Coppola made the Oscar-nominated but forever hated third installment of The Godfather trilogy in 1990, the horribly miscast Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992 and the ultra-lighthearted Jack in 1996, I have to imagine expectations were at an all-time low for his next project…I mean, his last two pictures featured Keanu Reeves, Jennier Lopez and Robin Williams in central roles, a far cry from the Pacinos, De Niros and Sheens of his golden days.
Following a career-long pattern, Frank decided to adapt a novel for his followup.
In the courtroom thriller literary genre, John Grisham is the king. Every novel since Grisham’s debut, A Time to Kill, had been adapted into a feature film. So Coppola jumped on board that surefire-hit train, optioning the author’s latest work The Rainmaker. Put it this way — in advertisements for the film, the title was listed as John Grisham’s The Rainmaker — although one of the all-time great directors was behind the lens, studios thought promoting Grisham’s name would spur ticket sales more. I’ve never read a Grisham novel but I’ve seen enough of his film adaptations to know a few things about the plot before I press play.
The majority of the film will take place either in a courtroom or the walls of a law firm, the protagonist will be a young lawyer fresh out of school who somehow gets in over his head and whomever the lead defense lawyer is, he will surely be an asshole. Sure enough, The Rainmaker follows each of these guidelines to the letter.
The strong cast is led by a young Matt Damon as the story’s principled protagonist Rudy Baylor, straight out of law school and chasing ambulances for a questionable firm, much to his chagrin. That firm, led by the likely corrupt “Bruiser” Stone (Mickey Rourke), is where Rudy makes an important confidant in the tenacious Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). Rudy and Deck team up to take the case of a low-income mother whose only son is dying of leukemia. Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) wants to sue Great Benefit Insurance over their refusal to pay for a potential treatment because they rule it “experimental.” Representing Great Benefit is a team of “$1,000 per hour” attorneys led by Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight) — leaving the upstart protagonists to try and keep pace. Meanwhile, Rudy begins to fall for Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), as he handles her divorce from a husband that severely beats her.
Damon’s casting reminds me of Matthew McConaughey in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, a Grisham adaptation that had come out the previous year. Both were relatively new talents, heading up formidable casts in films directed by brand name filmmakers. I was more impressed by McConaughey’s turn though — Damon’s best work would still be ahead of him. The best performances in the film come from Danes and Place, though.
Danes is as adorable as a battered woman can be — complete with obtrusive head bandages and an ever-present hospital gown. She’s banged up and bandaged for the first half of the movie, making her an easy character to root for but her refusal to walk away from her abusive husband (maybe the film’s most one-dimensional character) is frustrating, bordering on ridiculous considering the first time we see this guy he’s yelling at her in the hospital cafeteria, dumping food on her while she’s wheelchair-bound…I mean Coppola lays it on pretty thick that we’re supposed to hate this guy.
The love story between Rudy and Kelly is severely rushed by Coppola’s script. In the course of ten minutes, they literally go from not knowing each other to him vowing “to protect her,” in a bit of narration. Speaking of narration, the film leans heavily on it, especially early on. In fact, The Rainmaker relies on so much narration that I felt it robbed Damon of a lot of potentially great moments of acting. Rather than seeing his emotions, we merely hear him describe them through narration. In one scene, his voiceover declares he is “seriously outgunned and scared.” But onscreen, he appears completely calm and confident.
Overall, Rudy is a poorly constructed lead character. He is a straightforward heroic type with nary a flaw. I’m not exaggerating, the only flaw present in his character is maybe the fact that he’s too ethical…I’m really stretching for that one.
Meanwhile, DeVito provides much of the film’s comic relief as the bumbling Shifflet, who has failed the bar on seven different occasions. Standing as a direct contrast to Rudy’s by-the-books style, Shifflet gives an injection of fun to every scene he’s featured in. Unfortunately, this keeps him from becoming an autonomous character, he serves only as a cohort to Rudy, without much of a backstory.
The Rainmaker is by-the-books legal fare. It’s a typical David v. Goliath story but the storyline’s antagonism of private insurance companies takes on new significance today. This is an easy film to follow and a laid-back watch — it’s also well-acted, especially from its female cast members. However, when I see Coppola’s name attached to something, I expect more than above average courtroom popcorn film. We’ll just look at the ’90s as a ten year vacation for Frank.