CONSIDERING JOHN GRISHAM'S novel "The Rainmaker" is essentially a suspense story about paperwork, the project seems like a particularly strange choice for an operatic maestro like Francis Ford Coppola. Apparently, Coppola feels the need to prove he can deliver a nice, reasonable, commercial movie (and make himself a bit of money while he's at it). What the producers of "John Grisham's The Rainmaker" get from the deal is another cultural brand name to attach to the results, a bit of prestige. What filmgoers get is a satisfactory mainstream entertainment, with a handful of major actors in juicy minor roles tossed in for good measure.
Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, our hero -- and Rudy is most decidedly that, the walking definition of a good kid: idealistic, polite, bright and modest. Damon looks like Leonardo de Caprio with a little more flesh and a little less fire, likable enough, but it's a bit of a stretch expecting him to carry the film. Rudy -- broke, fresh out of law school and still cramming for the bar -- gets a job working for "Bruiser" (the highly enjoyable Mickey Rourke), a sleazy shyster with French cuffs the size of Rhode Island who keeps a big tank of sharks in his office as a joke. Bruiser teams Rudy up with Deck Shiffler (Danny DeVito), a shrewd scrabbler who's failed the bar six times, and sends the unlikely pair out to chase ambulances. When the authorities notice some irregularities in Bruiser's practice ("jury tampering, money skimming, tax evasion, you name it"), Rudy and Deck decide to hang out their own shingle, taking Rudy's three unpromising cases with them.
The most amusing scenes in "The Rainmaker" belong to DeVito's Shiffler, whose energetic pursuit of a legal career remains unhampered by pride, cynicism or mere regulatory details like his own lack of a license. "Hmm, 'Do Not Enter,'" he reads off a hospital door before stepping breezily through it. He hustles every injured person he sees, even if it's only a neighborhood kid with a cast on his arm. He, and the film's lowlife milieu, give Coppola's screenplay an opportunity to show some crackling wit. With Shiffler as his sidekick, Rudy can afford to be noble, but DeVito plays this instrumental character so well that he, rather than Damon, seems to best embody the funky mix of expedience and righteousness that makes for a good lawyer. "There's nothing more thrilling than nailing a big insurance company," Shiffler tells Rudy early on, and it's clear that he finds equal pleasure in the justice and the cash.
Rudy's biggest case pits him against a shady insurance company that specializes in selling health coverage door-to-door in poor neighborhoods. Mary Kay Place plays a chain-smoking working-class mom whose son is dying of leukemia as a result of the insurance company's refusal to pay for a bone-marrow transplant. She hires Rudy to sue the company for $10 million, and that suit provides the movie's climactic courtroom drama. There's a bevy of highly enjoyable performances by aging male actors here -- Jon Voight as the company's lead lawyer, with a face like expensive cured meat; Dean Stockwell hacking emphysematically as a burned-out judge; Roy Scheider in a powder blue suit as the insurance company's loathsome CEO. "The Rainmaker" is a veritable catalog of white, middle-aged male turpitude.
The case proceeds pretty much as expected -- with the usual last-minute discoveries, unearthed witnesses, obscure precedents plucked from the law books just when hope seems lost, plain-spoken denunciations of corporate iniquity from regular folks on the witness stand, outraged lapel straightening on the part of Voight and company whenever their respectability gets challenged and of course an impassioned plea from Rudy that the jury "just do what you feel is right, in your hearts." In a side story, Rudy finds a love interest and rescue object in Claire Danes, playing a battered young wife whose sole purpose is to get beat up by her husband until Rudy saves her. Their dull romance does, however, provide the movie's only slice of bravura filmmaking: a murky, claustrophobic fight scene in the couple's tract home that scarily captures the confusion and terror of domestic violence.
"The Rainmaker" never really amounts to more than generic, if effective, entertainment, but it does contain one element that throws the whole formulaic story a bit off kilter. It's the kernel of tragedy in the dying boy and his family. The writing, acting and directing talent in "The Rainmaker" are just too good to reduce his death to a merely "sad" device to fuel Rudy's moral fervor and provide him with a certifiably righteous cause. "This is how the uninsured die," Rudy's voice-over murmurs as the camera takes in the wasted young man (movingly played by Johnny Whitworth) under a tangle of handmade afghans, slowly ebbing away in his family's shag-carpeted living room.
Later, the boy's nearly mute, alcoholic father confronts Sheider, Voight and their cronies in the courtroom, thrusting a photo of his lost son in their faces. Yes, it's corny and overblown, but it also works, as Coppola can sometimes make that sort of thing work, and the sudden jolt of pain emotionally ambushes the movie. Abruptly, anything Rudy can do to punish the insurance company nasties seems entirely beside the point, a matter of money and vengeance when everything that really matters is already gone. That's what civil litigation and, for that matter, this kind of serviceable entertainment are about, really, making an equation between feeling and money that never quite adds up.