Rite de Passage8/10
All cultures have what the sociologist Arnold van Gennep called "rites de passage," also sometimes called puberty rituals, in which the initiate enters the ceremony as a child and emerges as an adult. Coppola and his team show us Rudy Baylor's rite de passage as an attorney. Matt Damon, as Rudy, is a fresh faced preppy-looking kid just out of law school. After working for the sleazebag played by Mickey Rourke and going into partnership with Danny DeVito (who has flunked the bar exam six times), he can look back down the slope and pick out the idealism he left sprinkled along the route of his ascent. He winds up quitting practice.
But it's not a particularly gloomy story. I missed the credits when I first saw this so I had no idea who had created it. I expected a cheap ne plus ultra of mind-numbing commercial fluff. What else would anyone expect with a title like that -- "John Gresham's 'The Rainmaker'"? Shades of Sydney Sheldon! The opening didn't suggest much more than that. There is a voice-over by Matt Damon explaining his background and expectations to us. And we see him being guided open-mouthed through the slimier parts of the judicial system. DeVito introduces him, for instance, to ambulance chasing. Not too promising, really, because professionals who operate within heavily guarded social borders -- like lawyers, cops, doctors, and pilots -- almost always assume that the audience is too dumb to know that collusion between a judge and a prominent lawyer takes place. The lay audience is now cynical enough to recognize Perry Mason for the Norman Rockwell fantasy that he is.
But it was much better than that. Half-way through I began to think, this director, whoever he is, is pretty deft. I was surprised at an undercurrent of humor. Sometimes it was situational. Two lawyers for instance, dashing into a courtroom to try a case, neither of whom has a license to practice law. ("Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel," Damon muses.) Sometimes the humor requires less attention. (In the middle of a dramatic pause, DeVito, eager to deliver a piece of evidence to his partner, stumbles loudly over a waste basket.) And there were smaller, delicate touches. A splatter of blood spots on a wall as the camera cuts away just before someone is hit over the head. Damon and Claire Danes (with whom a love bond is too quickly established) in a prison visiting room, unable to express their affection because they are lawyer and client, except that under the table the tip of his shoe slips forward and brushes the tip of her boot. (Wow. Nice touch.) And Claire Danes' wife-abusing husband is a stereotype if there ever was one -- yet after his murder is discovered and the blinking screaming police cars arrive and she is about to be taken away, the wife-abuser's family can be heard in the background shouting, "DAMN you, Kelly. What did you do? You killed my SON?" Coppola and the writers have given this moron a previously unheard-from family of his own, and added another surprising dimension to his character.
And I couldn't get over the performances. There are several unexpected small parts taken by well-known actors. And every one of them has a life of its own. Virginia Madsen is being interviewed in a motel room by Damon, and she spills the beans on the malignant corporate megagiant that provides the unoriginal heavy. As she speaks, she smokes a lot and the camera moves slowly down her arm to show her fingers trembling in her lap. Only later do we learn she has psychiatric problems. (Cinematic synecdoche!) Roy Scheider is extremely good too, a disdainful presence in the witness chair. He's from Orange, New Jersey. Why does DeVito so often seem to wind up in movies with other actors from New Jersey? What is it about that state anyway? Does the Jersey Devil have something to do with it? Why does hail always have to be the size of something else? If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding INTO? Anyway, this, for Coppola, is a pretty straightforward story, neither the grand opera he's attracted to, nor the more quiet "personal" films that usually come in between.
I really kind of enjoyed this one. Of the current crop of younger actors, Matt Damon seems to me to have the most talent, as opposed to, say, Keanu Reeves. And Claire Danes is so frangible, so beatable in this movie; even with her leg in a cast and the rest of her limbs and head in bandages, she's morbidly alluring and radiates a sort of semisexual heat. Come to think of it -- well, never mind. See it if you can. It's pretty good.