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John Grisham's The Rainmaker

Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Michael Herr
With Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place, Mickey Rourke, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Virginia Madsen.

I saw John Grisham's The Rainmaker and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil only four days apart, which made the similarities between the latest features of Francis Ford Coppola and Clint Eastwood especially striking. Both are the work of distinguished directors, and both represent departures from what one expects from them. Both are adapted from best-sellers set in southern cities, Memphis and Savannah, and structured around sensational courtroom trials. Both manage to be both slow and entertaining, what one might call delightfully dawdling--a rare combination in Hollywood filmmaking these days--and both place great emphasis on a violent character while restricting their depictions of violence to a few short scenes, a combination that's equally rare. Both movies can be described as largely character driven, even though the putative heroes--played respectively by Matt Damon and John Cusack--come across as relatively faceless. But given what the two movies leave me to ponder afterward, I think it's fair to say that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil blows The Rainmaker out of the water.

Paradoxically, though the Eastwood film is set in the early 1980s, it comes across as far more modern than the Coppola film, which is apparently set in the present--though, like other movies derived from John Grisham novels, it could just as well be happening during the 50s. If The Rainmaker has a model, I suspect it's Otto Preminger's 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, another courtroom drama derived from a best-seller. Preminger's movie--and the Robert Traver novel it's based on--is an inspirational tale about a small-time lawyer, understaffed and underpaid and motivated simply by the love of justice, marshaling all his resources (including a disreputable older colleague who helps him out on the sly) to defeat powerful, well-paid opponents in the courtroom. Both Anatomy of a Murder and The Rainmaker also have a secondary theme about wife beating, although in The Rainmaker it's a story separate from the case.

It's harder to come up with a model for the Eastwood film, but if I had to settle on a single one, I'd need to go back a lot farther than the 50s--all the way back to the 20s and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, Midnight lacks anything resembling the tragic love story that stands at the quiet center of Gatsby; it mostly involves the closeted and uncloseted gay subculture of Savannah, which has no precise counterpart in Fitzgerald's novel (apart from the rather loose parallel of a "criminal subculture"). But both works are atmospheric mood pieces about a nouveau riche millionaire who throws famously lavish, well-attended parties and is eventually brought down by a violent crime related to the connections he maintains with the working class, "rough trade" in particular. (Although "rough trade" generally refers only to the gay milieu, one could argue that George and Myrtle Wilson in Gatsby are the heterosexual equivalents.) Both stories are recounted by a relatively detached and anonymous outsider, a neighbor and guarded friend of the mysterious millionaire who attends some of his parties and also becomes acquainted with people from other classes in the millionaire's orbit. Beyond these parallels, the connections are more tenuous, although one might postulate a structural similarity between the magical-realism functions of voodoo in Midnight and the equally bracketed functions of high modernism in Gatsby--most of them tied to T.S. Eliot in references such as the "valley of ashes" and the giant "eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg" (a faded optometrist's sign) brooding over Fitzgerald's symbolic terrain. And both works must change gears stylistically for the romantic-realist narrative to become more metaphysical, appealing to a higher order.

Both movies, I hasten to add, fall way short of their models, but at their best they evoke a little of their precursors' suggestive magic. But what distinguishes Midnight most clearly from The Rainmaker is its more sophisticated and complex moral framework. The villains and the good guys in Coppola's film are easily spotted and never deviate from their assigned moral roles--on one side, venal insurance scam artists, their corrupt lawyers, and a psychotic wife beater, and on the other, their abject victims and idealistic opponents. But no such fixed positions can be parceled out to the characters in the Eastwood movie, where moral relativity and moral ambiguity reign. From a world-weary 90s vantage point but described in terms of the 50s, the difference is simply that between square and hip.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Rating *** A must see
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by John Lee Hancock
With Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, the Lady Chablis, Alison Eastwood, Irma P. Hall, Paul Hipp, Jude Law, and Jack Thompson.

In keeping with this difference, The Rainmaker's virtues have a lot to do with movie nostalgia. The film delivers old-fashioned star turns and glittering cameos (Jon Voight and Mickey Rourke are especially good, but Danny DeVito, Mary Kay Place, Danny Glover, Virginia Madsen, Roy Scheider, and Dean Stockwell--not to mention old-Hollywood icon Teresa Wright--also provide considerable pleasure). This film also has a keen sense of liberal outrage, which used to be common currency in Hollywood movies before the triumph of Reaganism made it less fashionable; a well-crafted offscreen narration, written by Michael Herr and delivered by Damon, that recalls the pivotal role played by Herr's pithy, morally nuanced narration in Coppola's Apocalypse Now; even an old-fashioned Hollywood score by Elmer Bernstein-- yet another reminder of the 50s.

There's plenty of nostalgia in Midnight as well, but it's tied less to a shared movie past than to the shared sense of an older American culture. The film's central setting is Mercer House, built by the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer, and Eastwood draws on his exquisite taste in jazz and popular music to lace the sound track with about a dozen vocal renditions of Mercer standards. Among the performers are Eastwood himself, his daughter, and Kevin Spacey--though my favorites are probably the first and last ones used in the film: K.D. Lang's striking version of "Skylark" and Alison Krauss with Charlie Haden's Quartet West performing a convulsively gorgeous "This Time the Dream's on Me.") But more generally--like John Berendt, who wrote the original book--Eastwood banks on nostalgia for a kind of American, specifically southern community and style of life steeped in the past. This quality infuses his portrait of Savannah--an almost preindustrial world of friendly neighbors, continuous partying, colorful eccentrics, and quaint customs. It's no accident that the hero first meets the heroine when she comes by to borrow ice cubes during a power shortage.

Although I have no desire to read John Grisham's novel--rightly or wrongly I feel I know it already--Eastwood's movie persuaded me to skim Berendt's "nonfiction novel" in order to determine how much of the movie's meandering story line derives from it. Both book and movie deal with the murder by wealthy antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey, in his best performance to date) of a violent youth who works for him and sleeps with him. Whether this murder is committed in self-defense or for another reason is a central issue during the trial, but the story focuses equally on the effect this event has on Williams's social status in Savannah: how his sexual behavior is weighed against his wealth and prestige, and how his declared guilt or innocence is a function of the community's view of his sexual behavior. As for what really happened, the movie offers three possibilities--as well as a coda that suggests more about Williams's romantic feelings for his victim than anything offered in the book.

Berendt--a journalist who was a casual friend of Williams--has a somewhat ambiguous relation to the hero partially cloaked by the "nonfiction novel" label. (One friend describes their conversations as the moves of two canny poker players.) There's no such ambiguity in the movie, which substitutes for Berendt a clearly fictional, unambiguously heterosexual journalist (John Cusack) who even has a romance with a local singer (Alison Eastwood). As in Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart, the character replacing the book's narrator is relatively faceless; like the shadowy reporter Thompson in Citizen Cane, he functions more as the viewer's conduit into the world of the other characters than as a personality in his own right.

John Lee Hancock's skillful screen adaptation both transforms the original story and retains much of the book's atmosphere. Though he collapses four successive murder trials--the first three of which ended in guilty verdicts--into a single trial ending with a not-guilty verdict, the thrust of the story and its meaning remain the same. The book is largely a collection of relaxed character sketches--one man (played by jazz musician James Moody) daily walks an "invisible dog," and another goes around with flies on threadlike leashes--that becomes a crime story almost halfway through. The movie launches the crime story much earlier and tries, with mixed results, to integrate it with some of the character sketches.

While Berendt's book depends largely on a rambling oral discourse--much of it various forms of southern jive the author heard, relished, and perhaps embroidered--the movie arrives at the same rambling effect using a simpler narrative line with quirky digressions. (The film's clunky trailer destroys this effect, following the standard practice of telegraphing everything in short punches and making the film look strained and phony as a result.) Thus three separate anecdotes in the book involving domestic firearms become a single conversation and event at a party in the movie. This method works less well with the dog walker and fly collector, I suspect because one effect of such digressions is either the loss or the awkward imposition of connective narrative tissue. (More defensible is the omission of such details as a Nazi banner Williams uses for a practical joke and a harrowing account of a gay-bashing incident; both would have overpowered and thereby unbalanced the film narrative.)

The same problem exists to a lesser extent with a real-life black drag queen from the book, the Lady Chablis, who's invited to play an expanded role in the movie (she even turns up as a trial witness--a characteristic fictional addition). She clearly isn't a film actor because her theatricality is firmly grounded in stage presence. But Eastwood's decision not only to use her but to periodically let her run away with the movie--apart from Spacey, she gives the richest star performance--is one of his gutsiest moves, and it pays off. (It's also highly indicative of what makes this movie much more modern than The Rainmaker.) Regardless of the fictional premises that sometimes justify her presence in the film, she remains a documentary element in the same way and to the same degree as do the various Savannah locations, including Mercer House--an "impersonation" that tests and contextualizes all the other impersonations in the film, social as well as actorly. This is, after all, a movie that's basically about playing roles. Eastwood essentially uses the Lady Chablis the same way he did a few extended Charlie Parker solos in Bird--as unbridled, inventive improvisations that challenge the well-rehearsed "head" arrangements of everyone else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Rainmaker/ Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil film stills.

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