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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Before he became a star, Matt Damon joined Francis Ford Coppola to make the best John Grisham movie

Illustration for article titled Before he became a star, Matt Damon joined Francis Ford Coppola to make the best John Grisham movie
Screenshot: The Rainmaker

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Because the new Conjuring movie didn’t scratch our itch for (supernatural) legal fireworks, we’re coping with four days of courtroom dramas.

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The Rainmaker (1997)

“I like to spend my days in court,” Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a straight-arrow, aw-shucks lawyer, tells another character in the John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker. He’s not exactly lying—Rudy does his best not to lie, despite or maybe because of his awareness of how his profession is regarded—but it’s a somewhat misleading self-characterization nonetheless. Rudy has just graduated from law school, has yet to pass the bar exam, and is barely scraping by as a sketchy employee of an ambulance-chasing firm run by Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke). The Rainmaker eventually follows Rudy’s first court case, a major civil suit against a scammy insurance company that repeatedly denied the claim of a policy-holder suffering from cancer. But writer-director Francis Ford Coppola takes his time to get there. This is a courtroom drama that doesn’t skimp on the pre-trial depositions and judge-chamber meetings; it’s 45 minutes into the movie before Rudy and his paralegal sidekick Deck (Danny DeVito) have formed their own ramshackle mini-firm.

Deck, who has years of experience fishing for clients yet can’t quite find the wherewithal to actually pass the bar exam, gives DeVito a juicy role right in his wheelhouse. He’s the most delightful member of the movie’s crack supporting cast, which also includes Mary Kay Place, Virginia Madsen, Danny Glover, Dean Stockwell, and a pre-crazytown Jon Voight as the slickly manipulative opposing counsel. Coppola gives them their space; the Memphis setting feels well-populated and lived-in. The movie is less engaging in its treatment of Rudy’s relationship with domestic violence survivor Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), who exists primarily to be threatened by her boyfriend, protected by her new lawyer, and treated as a vehicle for the righteousness that sometimes makes its way into Grisham adaptations.

Danes is one of several members of this ensemble who were substantially more famous than their leading man at the time of The Rainmaker’s release. It came out mere weeks before Damon vaulted to real stardom with Good Will Hunting, and while the earlier film seems to fit Damon’s hardscrabble-golden-boy persona, in retrospect it’s noteworthy how poorly Rudy fits that model, at least in some respects. He’s less troubled than Will Hunting, and, despite his manners, less golden, too: No legal prodigy, he stumbles over his objections, misses cues, and isn’t sure how to operate in a world less scrupulous than his idealized understanding of the law.

By emphasizing Rudy’s weaknesses and filling the frame with side characters (sometimes literally, with some elegantly busy wide shots), Coppola almost obscures the fact that he’s making a Grisham thriller. Except, of course, that Coppola loves to credit his collaborators; Grisham’s possessive was affixed to the poster, similar to how Coppola recently retitled his Godfather Part III re-edit to include author Mario Puzo. Godfather III and The Rainmaker wound up bookending Coppola’s ’90s big-studio output, and it would be easy enough to read his subsequent decade-long directing gap as an indication that these projects weren’t taking the fullest advantage of his talents. But if making the best John Grisham adaptation pales a little in comparison to, say, making The Godfather Part II and The Conversation simultaneously, it shouldn’t diminish the lively, old-fashioned craftsmanship in full view.

Availability: The Rainmaker is currently streaming on Starz. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, AMC On Demand, and VUDU.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!