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By Rick Barton

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  A friend of mine who teaches public school told me of asking her seventh-graders to write an essay about a dream they harbored that would change their lives should it come true. She expected her students to respond with fantasies of athletic triumph or film stardom, or perhaps election to political office. One or two, she figured, might write of winning the lottery. Instead of old-fashioned dreams like these, however, more than half her class wrote about their hopes of winning a lawsuit. That's a chilling revelation of what has happened to American civil law practice: average people seeing the law as a way to enrich themselves. Such people, one gathers, think of winning a lawsuit against the deep pockets of a corporate entity, of an insurance company in particular, as an opportunity to put money in their own pockets without taking it out of someone else's. But that's entirely wrong, of course. And that's why auto insurance is so outrageously expensive in Louisiana and why the recent ridiculous $5 billion judgment in the Gentilly tank car case sent a serious chill down the spine of our fragile local economy. That's also a chief reason why I detested The Rainmaker, the latest John Grisham tale to land at your neighborhood multiplex.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Rainmaker is in most ways a typical Grisham David-and-Goliath story. Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is fresh out of a Memphis law school when he lands a client with a major case against a health insurance company. Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth) is dying of leukemia, and the Great Benefit Insurance Company has denied him a bone marrow transplant, which might save his life. Teaming up with ambulance-chasing law school graduate and repeated bar exam failure Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), Rudy sues for $10 million after waving off paltry settlement offers of $50 thousand and then $75 thousand from Great Benefit's chief attorney, Leo Drummond (Jon Voight). When Donny Ray doesn't survive until the trial gets under way, Rudy carries on for Donny Ray's brave, angry mother, Dot (Mary Kay Place). In case you've never seen a Grisham-based film before, I won't reveal how it comes out.

DeVito is always fun to watch on screen. Nobody does likable sleazeballs better than him. And though Place has done the grizzled working-class woman before, she's quite effective here. Other than that, though, The Rainmaker suffers from all the flaws I repeatedly find so irritating in Grisham's work. For a guy who was a working attorney before he got filthy rich writing about made-up young barristers, he sure seems ignorant of lots of things having to do with the practice of law. Start with his title. In the legal profession, the term "rainmaker" is used to denote powerful attorneys with huge client bases. Rainmakers produce so much work that all their partners and associates get rich handling their cases. There is no rainmaker in The Rainmaker.

There's just a lot of sloppiness about this film. When Rudy gets out of law school, he immediately associates with a shady lawyer named Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke doing a parody of his own reliable sliminess). Why? We're asked to believe that Rudy is a smart, hard-working kid, right? So didn't he get good grades in law school? And if he did, why is Bruiser the best he can do for a partner? Moreover, once he learns Bruiser's terms, why does Rudy agree to join up? Bruiser tells Rudy that he'll be responsible for bringing in his own cases, won't get paid unless he does and will have to fork over two-thirds of what he brings in to Bruiser. What's the upside? Given all this build-up, we think Rudy's relationship with Bruiser is going to be somehow important, but it isn't. A dead-end subplot about Bruiser being suspected of federal racketeering is introduced, and Bruiser disappears from the picture save for a single, late and improbable cameo.

A similar box canyon is built around Rudy's relationship with Kelly Riker (Clare Danes), a young jewelry store employee trapped in a horrible marriage. After a lesson from Deck in the fine art of ambulance chasing, Rudy is instructed by Bruiser to sign up Kelly, who is in the hospital after being savagely beaten by her husband, Cliff (Andrew Shue). That whole notion, of course, is as half-baked as everything else in this flick. Exactly who is it that Rudy is going to convince Kelly to sue? Cliff doesn't have anything. But, of course, it provides Rudy a love interest and helps show us that he's a good guy because he's against wife abuse. When Cliff is subsequently killed, we think for an astonished moment that the whole movie is going to lurch off into a crime thriller. But that's just a happenstantial reason for what the whole Kelly subplot actually is: a time filler.

There's other clumsy stuff, too. Rudy's chief witness against Great Benefit turns out to be a disgruntled former company employee named Jackie Lemanczyk (Virginia Madsen), who is discovered in another crummy bit of plotting at the last minute. At the climax, Roy Scheider shows up as Great Benefit CEO Wilfred Keeley. Scheider seems practically comatose, embarrassed into an awkward silence, no doubt, by being forced to wear an outfit that was last seen on Dennis Rodman at one of his infamous book signings. What is this powder-blue sweater suit about, Mr. Coppola?

But the real reason to loathe The Rainmaker is for the soft-headed way in which it asks us to root for an unreasonable, gigantic punitive damage award. I'm certainly not saying that insurance companies can't prove bureaucratically infuriating, heartless and even criminally corrupt. Of course they can. And I'm certainly not saying that juries should not make insurance companies pay legitimate claims. I'm not even against punitive damages. But I am against unreasonable punitive damages, which have become commonplace in recent years. Let us not forget that insurance companies provide a needed social service. They protect us all against the accident of undeserved misfortune. To do so, they've got to be able to stay in business. And they can't stay in business and can't charge reasonable rates if juries hand out unwarranted punitive damages, making selected individuals wildly rich. It appears that only the insurance company pays. And to that end, Coppola and Grisham actually stop the action late in The Rainmaker to make a political statement against those who advocate tort reform and caps on punitive damages (this in the service of attorneys who take up to 40 percent of the sums awarded their clients!). But the insurance company is, finally, only a kind of middle-man. It writes the check, but the rest of us actually end up paying.

Noir Down Under
FILM: Kiss or Kill
STARRING: Frances O'Connor, Matt Day
DIRECTOR: Bill Bennett

Writer/director Bill Bennett's Kiss or Kill is a kicky Australian noir about a couple of two-bit scam artists who head for the Outback when one of their marks ends up dead. A wild brunette named Nikki Davies (Frances O'Connor) lures men to a hotel room and drugs them so she and her boyfriend, Al Fletcher (Matt Day), can rob them. But then Nikki overdoes it one night, and a guy croaks. Moreover, he croaks with a kiddie porn videotape in his briefcase that shows the country's most famous football star sexually involved with a young boy. Our heroes (if you can call them that) don't even know what they've got. But pretty quickly, Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) is as anxious to catch them as the cops are.

Kiss or Kill doesn't break any new ground. It moves Al and Nikki from place to place one jump ahead of their pursuers. And it does what noir commonly does; namely, it turns the criminals on each other. The spin here is that even though Al and Nikki are bad and even though they start suspecting each other of worse things than either is guilty of, they keep on loving each other. That both fuels their potential redemption and keeps them from just running off in opposite directions.

Occasionally Bennett gases his plot by having Al and Nikki behave in stupid ways. They throw the dead man's wallet and credit cards out the window of their fleeing car, for instance, thereby leaving a trail the cops can follow. And Bennett employs that aggravating jump-cut style of editing that was hip when Jean-Luc Godard did it four decades ago in Breathless and which shouldn't have been employed even once since then. It's cheaper, no doubt, but it sure is annoying.

On the whole, though, Kiss or Kill delivers a decent return on your entertainment buck. The picture is frequently funny, and Bennett peoples the outlaws' path with an array of interestingly quirky characters. He also makes great use of Australia's vast emptiness as a metaphor for his characters' lives. You won't believe this movie, but you should enjoy it.

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