The Rainmaker

Danny DeVito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker



A half-hearted, second-rate vehicle designed to help carry Matt Damon to stardom, in which he takes his shirt off to play a principled rookie lawyer taking on a big bad medical insurance company. It’s written by John Grisham and while it’s in legal territory Grisham’s thrusting plot dynamics carry it forward. But that wouldn’t have suited the film’s agenda, which is more about Mr D’s career progression than telling a decent story. So as well as legal drama we have rather a lot of sub-plot in which Damon does the amorous hokey-cokey with the winsome Claire Danes, a client worth bending his professional ethics for. Other ornaments in this enjoyably decorated firmament include Danny De Vito as a squawking legal factotum called Deck Shifflet (full marks for that name, Mr Grisham) and Jon Voight as a bruising lawyer with “the man” engraved where his soul should be. It’s solid in the courtroom, shaky pretty much everywhere else, though Damon’s role is well delineated – he’s a rookie and he quite properly doesn’t have all the answers. The director’s credit goes to Francis Ford Coppola, who claims he read the book and asked to direct the film. Though it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is strictly gun-for-hire work.

© Steve Morrissey 1998


The Rainmaker – at Amazon


4 thoughts on “The Rainmaker”

  1. A story about an aspiring young lawyer who tries to break down an insurance company, Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a Memphis St. Law School graduate who can’t seem to find a job anywhere, until he meets "Bruiser" Stone (Mickey Rourke). Stone is an ambulance chaser, who does whatever it takes, legal or not, to win a case. Rudy, as most law students are when they graduate, wants to take the high road, do everything by the book, and win. What he finds is that sometimes you need to get down and dirty to help your client. In this case, his client is a young boy, dying of leukemia.

    Seems the insurance company won’t pay for a bone marrow transplant that would save his life. Rudy sets out to help the young man and his family, in what turns out to be one of the biggest cases Tennessee has ever seen. Along with his partner Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), Rudy sets out to try and prove to the world that the insurance company is nothing more than a big time scam artist. Along the way Rudy meets (and falls in love with) a young woman (Clare Danes) who gets beat up regularly by her husband. This part of the story seemed somewhat strange to me. I couldn’t figure out what it was there to do. Was it to give Rudy a love interest? Was it just to give the movie another case so the entire film wasn’t centered on the insurance trial? I feel it gave the movie some heart, and showed that Rudy would fight for what he believed in, both in court and in life. But I think the movie could have been done without it.

    I enjoyed the trial scenes and all the grunt work that went behind it (being a future lawyer myself (I hope)). And the cast was wonderful. Each person added a little more to the movie, and each gave a great performance. Danny Glover as the (2nd) judge gave a little humor to the movie, but also made you feel good about Rudy’s chances in court. He was going to play fair, but hew as also going to give Rudy the benefit of the doubt. Jon Voight played the insurance company’s lead lawyer, and he played his character to it’s swarmy best. He is what people think lawyers are like, out only for money; win at all costs, no soul (I know attorneys like that). And he was convincing. And of course DeVito and Damon carried the film.

    I had my doubts about Damon playing a lawyer, but the more I watched, the more I realized that he looked like people I see at work everyday. He had the same fear in his eyes that we all do, but also that dog-eat-dog determination to prove to the world that he could do the job. The Rainmaker was more about the performances than the story. And the performances won me over. Give it a shot, it’s worth it.

  2. Readers of John Grisham’s book will find this film rather less of a thriller and more of a courtroom drama, albeit with a curious flat feel to it. The story is that of a legal action on behalf of a teenage boy denied coverage for an expensive bone marrow transplant by his family’s medical insurer. Changes to the plotline to accommodate the story to the demands of film drama have removed the unique feature of the book – a largely successful attempt to make the details of legal civil procedure interesting. Francis Coppola is a very innovative yet conventional director (you could credit him with authorship of several current movie clichés) and his storylines develop according to convention. Thus the love affair, which is completely extraneous to the main storyline in the book, is pumped up, and the fascinating battle of wits between the lawyers played down. As in the book, Rudy is the tyro David up against the experienced Goliath, Drummond, but Rudy’s inexperience is played up to the point that you wonder how he got this far. The trial judge, who in the book is extremely helpful to Rudy, is replaced in the film by a sympathetic but much more impartial figure. In Hollywood conventional courtroom drama, His Honor or Her Honor doesn’t take sides.

    That said, there is much to enjoy. Danny de Vito, playing Deck the paralegal (or `paralawyer’ as Rudy names him) who can’t seem to pass the bar exam, is just brilliant. His Deck is a disheveled, unimpressive little guy who is nonetheless good at what he does, `rainmaking’ or finding new business. His strengths are his intelligence, his energy and his lack of pride; he is quite happy to chase ambulances and give cops backhanders for information. His ethics are simple: fight for your client, don’t steal and try not to lie. While the Deck of the book verges on the grotesque, De Vito makes him less of an oddball and hence more sympathetic. Matt Damon as Rudy is wetter behind the ears and not such a quick learner as the Rudy of the book, but every so often he connects and we understand how he feels. Mickey Rourke is a bit too elegant as Bruiser, Rudy’s erstwhile mentor, (who wears cufflinks on a tropical beach?) but it’s also an enjoyable performance. Although the script tones down his role, John Voight is nastily urbane as superlawyer Drummond.

    Once again we have a courtroom drama filmed in a grand but gloomy courtroom, in fact the lighting people seem to have been absent. We hardly get a glimpse of the face of one important minor character, Cliff the wife-beater, (Andrew Shue) yet there is no apparent reason for this. The way some of the scenes were strung together, and started and finished were vaguely familiar, and half way through it hit me – ` The Godfather’, where scenes just seem to begin and end without any particular reason.

    One thing the film does almost as well as the book is send the message (sorry Mr Goldwyn) that America needs to do something about its medical insurance system, if the present chaotic mess can be so described. The court system, while not perfect, comes out of it a bit better (David is able to beat Goliath fair and square) but as for lawyers…well, let’s just say things would be a lot better if they stuck to Deck’s minimal ethics. The story also might explain why John Grisham (who has a walk-on role as a lawyer at an al fresco deposition) gave up the law to write books, thus bringing pleasure to millions instead of (hopefully) winning retribution for a few.

  3. I love this film. This is probably Copola's last great film. Matt Damon was robbed, this is one of his best performances, and that's saying a lot. I love the little nuances of his performance, like when he greets the "old lady' at her house.

    This is my 2nd favorite film of all time with deep personal meaning. We've all had people doubting our capabilities, just as the other team of lawyers discount Damon's competence. This film is about personal redemption. Further, I admire Damon's strength.

    Overall, a film every law student and lawyer should see for its humanity; its brilliance; and its judgment on the American legal system.

  4. All cultures have what the sociologist Arnold van Gennep called "rites de passage," also sometimes called puberty rituals, in which the initiate enters the ceremony as a child and emerges as an adult. Coppola and his team show us Rudy Baylor's rite de passage as an attorney. Matt Damon, as Rudy, is a fresh faced preppy-looking kid just out of law school. After working for the sleazebag played by Mickey Rourke and going into partnership with Danny DeVito (who has flunked the bar exam six times), he can look back down the slope and pick out the idealism he left sprinkled along the route of his ascent. He winds up quitting practice.

    But it's not a particularly gloomy story. I missed the credits when I first saw this so I had no idea who had created it. I expected a cheap ne plus ultra of mind-numbing commercial fluff. What else would anyone expect with a title like that — "John Gresham's 'The Rainmaker'"? Shades of Sydney Sheldon! The opening didn't suggest much more than that. There is a voice-over by Matt Damon explaining his background and expectations to us. And we see him being guided open-mouthed through the slimier parts of the judicial system. DeVito introduces him, for instance, to ambulance chasing. Not too promising, really, because professionals who operate within heavily guarded social borders — like lawyers, cops, doctors, and pilots — almost always assume that the audience is too dumb to know that collusion between a judge and a prominent lawyer takes place. The lay audience is now cynical enough to recognize Perry Mason for the Norman Rockwell fantasy that he is.

    But it was much better than that. Half-way through I began to think, this director, whoever he is, is pretty deft. I was surprised at an undercurrent of humor. Sometimes it was situational. Two lawyers for instance, dashing into a courtroom to try a case, neither of whom has a license to practice law. ("Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel," Damon muses.) Sometimes the humor requires less attention. (In the middle of a dramatic pause, DeVito, eager to deliver a piece of evidence to his partner, stumbles loudly over a waste basket.) And there were smaller, delicate touches. A splatter of blood spots on a wall as the camera cuts away just before someone is hit over the head. Damon and Claire Danes (with whom a love bond is too quickly established) in a prison visiting room, unable to express their affection because they are lawyer and client, except that under the table the tip of his shoe slips forward and brushes the tip of her boot. (Wow. Nice touch.) And Claire Danes' wife-abusing husband is a stereotype if there ever was one — yet after his murder is discovered and the blinking screaming police cars arrive and she is about to be taken away, the wife-abuser's family can be heard in the background shouting, "DAMN you, Kelly. What did you do? You killed my SON?" Coppola and the writers have given this moron a previously unheard-from family of his own, and added another surprising dimension to his character.

    And I couldn't get over the performances. There are several unexpected small parts taken by well-known actors. And every one of them has a life of its own. Virginia Madsen is being interviewed in a motel room by Damon, and she spills the beans on the malignant corporate megagiant that provides the unoriginal heavy. As she speaks, she smokes a lot and the camera moves slowly down her arm to show her fingers trembling in her lap. Only later do we learn she has psychiatric problems. (Cinematic synecdoche!) Roy Scheider is extremely good too, a disdainful presence in the witness chair. He's from Orange, New Jersey. Why does DeVito so often seem to wind up in movies with other actors from New Jersey? What is it about that state anyway? Does the Jersey Devil have something to do with it? Why does hail always have to be the size of something else? If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding INTO? Anyway, this, for Coppola, is a pretty straightforward story, neither the grand opera he's attracted to, nor the more quiet "personal" films that usually come in between.

    I really kind of enjoyed this one. Of the current crop of younger actors, Matt Damon seems to me to have the most talent, as opposed to, say, Keanu Reeves. And Claire Danes is so frangible, so beatable in this movie; even with her leg in a cast and the rest of her limbs and head in bandages, she's morbidly alluring and radiates a sort of semisexual heat. Come to think of it — well, never mind. See it if you can. It's pretty good.

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