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Getting Grishamed.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 24, 1998:  In the '70s, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman were kings—hailed by critics, discussed and dissected by hip movie buffs, nominated for Oscars, and rewarded at the box office. They had their cake and ate it—boy, did they eat it (see Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for details).

Now it's 1998 and Hollywood auteurs are few and far between. And Coppola and Altman are making John Grisham movies.

I've never thought much of Grisham—can't write, can't construct a plot worth a damn—but it's not hard to understand what movie directors see in him: money. And that's fine. Coppola, at least, has made masterpieces from torrid pulp before.

Not this time out, though. The Rainmaker (1997, R) is a lousy movie, and it's lousy in more ways than your average Grisham thriller. Not only are the plot and character development weak as hell, but the pacing is lugubrious and devoid of tension. You'd think Coppola had never made a suspense film before. Lost in the mess is a large, talented cast (Danny DeVito, Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Jon Voight, Mickey Rourke). The story—about a rapacious but oddly stupid insurance company and the crusading young lawyer who brings it to its knees—is ridiculous, with no pay-offs whatsoever. A thriller should have some sort of thrills, some plot element that you can't immediately decipher at the beginning of the film. There's none of that here. In one scene, lawyer-hero Damon asks lawyer-villain Voight, "Do you even remember the first time you sold out?" The Rainmaker makes you want to ask Coppola the same question.

Altman fares considerably better with The Gingerbread Man (1998, R), billed as the first story Grisham—whose novels are basically just long movie pitches—wrote exclusively for the screen. It's not a great film—too many twists instead of too few, and a predictably over the top denouement—but Altman makes nice use of the Savannah, Ga. setting to evoke an attractively sleazy decadence. Kenneth Branagh is good as a cocky but unstable defense lawyer trying to save a young woman from her crazy, stalking dad (Robert Duvall, who manages great menace with barely a word of dialogue). Nice work by Robert Downey Jr., too, as a flamboyant private eye—but is it really good for him to be playing an alcoholic? Even at its best, however, this is nothing more than an efficient mystery movie.

Both directors made superior thrillers back in their salad days. Coppola's The Conversation (1974, PG) is an engrossing study of paranoia, and Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973, R) is a cheeky updating of Raymond Chandler. John Grisham could learn a thing or two from them.

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