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Watch This! #4: Lawyers, Guns and Money

August 16, 2010

I have a fondness for films depicting flawed attorneys handling impossible-to-win cases. The outcome of the cases – though there are trope guidelines – are rarely that interesting to me. I just like watching the all the theatrics, setbacks and a parade of dashing actors play boozing, womanizing lawyers who have all but squandered their potential. I also like how Gene Hackman used to be in every other film about lawyers behaving badly – usually playing the most badly behaved lawyer of them all.

The Verdict (1982)
Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O’Shea
Director: Sidney Lumet

Look, Newman can light into nuanced grit like it owes him fucking money. And for corn’s sake, boozy, down-on-their-luck-lawyers-with-hearts-of-gold-plating are certainly no novelty. But under Lumet’s careful direction Newman’s work in The Verdict is messy, disturbing and utterly hypnotic. Newman would hit a similar note – albeit in a more polished way – in Nobody’s Fool, another film you should check out.

(via Sidney and Sydney)

I often suggest The Verdict to people in order to demonstrate it’s possible to make a gripping, fantastic film while strictly adhering to conventions of the genre – in this case it’s the old courtroom thriller. People hear the word “trope” or “genre” and scoff, but neither of those things are bad unless they are executed badly. The screenplay – written by David Mamet – understands the genre’s rules completely and therefore is able to subvert them without making the audience roll its eyes. Lumet is generally at his best with this kind of character study and Paul Newman is absolutely flawless.

Runway Jury (2003)
Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Jeremy Piven, Luis Guzman
Director: Gary Fleder

Runaway Jury is the perfect Saturday afternoon or bored at home movie. It’s got a great story – based on a Grisham novel – a likable lead in Cusack, who keeps the smarm to a minimum. It’s also got Rachel Weisz, who is pitch perfect as Marlee, a woman in cohoots with Cusack’s Easter. Don’t try to read about it. Just watch the movie. It is so satisfying and trope busting, you will stand up and cheer at its surprise ending. (Please don’t spoil it in the comments!). It’s my favorite Grisham-to-screen adaptation. It always puts me in a better mood. Runway Jury also noteworthy for being Hackman’s penultimate acting performance. Hackman retired from acting in 2004 with Welcome to Mooseport being his delightfully comedic send off. Yes, it is! His performance in Runway Jury makes up for his lackluster role in John Grisham’s The Chamber and is on par with his performance in…

The Firm (1993)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, Hal Holbrook, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris, Gary Busey, David Strathairn, Terry (Woodman from 30something) Kinney, Tobin Bell, Steven “Adam Schiff” Hill
Director: Sydney Pollack

From a film snob standpoint The Firm has two strikes against it: it’s based on a novel by John Grisham and it stars Tom Cruise. I can’t help you reconcile the latter, but I can make a case for the former. Grisham is the writer’s patron. He donates his fortune and his name to support writers (with programs that emphasize inclusion of writers on the margins, specifically Southern writers) with scholarships and residences he funds at U of Miss. I also enjoy his books. I find his economy of language – not so much the books, which are long, but the sentences themselves – refreshing. His syntax is reminiscent of Hemingway and it’s a style I prefer. Grisham also tells great stories. Who know jurisprudence could be so gothic? That said, the book is better than the movie, but the film adaptation is very entertaining. The film is also notable for being another excellent example of the Hal Holbrook theorem, which states if you see Hal Holbrook coming towards you in a three piece suit it’s best to run in the other direction, as fast as you can. Anyway, The Firm is about a mildly greedy yuppie lawyer Mitch (Cruise) with a jailbird brother and a host of other axes to grind who believes he’s entitled to the “good life” because he’s worked so hard and had a difficult life. Naturally, he’s easily seduced by money and does not seem to know how to investigate his prospective employer, prior to accepting a lucrative offer of employment. Everyone’s absolutely at their hammy best in this film – even Cruise – but Busey, Harris, Brimley and Hunter steal the show. Holly Hunter was even nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Firm. She lost, but that’s okay. I’m pretty sure winning Best Actress later on that same evening more than made up for it.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010 10:28 am

    Just this past Saturday I was mentioning how glistening Ashley Judd is during A Time to Kill. I still remember how fun it was sitting in the theater watching The Firm. I missed Runaway Jury, I’ll have to check it out now.

  2. August 16, 2010 10:50 am

    Oh, I love smarmy lawyer movies. And, well, most Grisham movies. I think The Client is my favorite (even though it’s not really a smarmy lawyer movie).

  3. August 16, 2010 11:00 am

    @raymond – Ashley Judd (come back, Ashley. I appreciate you!) was electrifying in A Time to Kill. She was also the embodiment of “dewy finish” make up. Definitely check out Runway Jury. You’ll dig it. You’ll go bonks over all the character actors and such. Plus everyone’s really good in it.

    @eieioj – I LOVE The Client. It’s definitely going to be featured soon. Oh, Tommy Lee Jones was smarmy plenty!!!

  4. lil anie permalink
    August 16, 2010 10:13 pm

    Thanks for acknowledging my precious “Runaway Jury”… The lines in that movie, awwwwww *i think I’ll watch it now*. My personal favorite is the “Sportman’s Legacy fund”, of which I wouldn’t mind being a beneficiary…

    Great choices – I will have to check out The Verdict – you never fail me…

  5. August 16, 2010 10:57 pm

    I think you’ll like The Verdict. Sidney Lumet is our boy!

  6. August 17, 2010 8:43 am

    I find these movies fabulously entertaining, and now I know why. Well recommended.

  7. lil anie permalink
    August 17, 2010 8:50 am

    Yes, Sidney is one of our “main men” – 12 Angry Men, sooo good (even though I was initially forcibly introduced through school).

    Im excited about seeing it!

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