CALL HIM THE Rejuvenator. Or maybe the Remodeler. Because for much of his post-'70s career, Francis Ford Coppola has set a pattern of taking up a genre or trend that's seemingly at the end of its shelf life and then giving it enough of a twist that it practically becomes something new. From the neo-musical One From the Heart (1982) through his two self-described "art-movies for kids," The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983)--and, more recently, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and the grown-up-kid fantasy Jack (1996)--Coppola has panned for gold amid dross.
Whether this is a wise career strategy is another question, but now that Coppola has taken on John Grisham's The Rainmaker, the credits and debits of such a method are even more interesting. Grisham has compelling stories to tell that glorify "the law" in general but vilify many lawyers in particular. He feeds our role-conscious, cliche-based media market with a fairly thoughtful formula that guarantees solid profits and respectable résumé entries for everyone involved. So why is Coppola, the millionaire and self-proclaimed "outsider auteur," hopping onto this bandwagon? Is it a case of "me, too" or "I told you so"?
Coppola and his peers in the film-brat generation once sought to restate (if not redefine) film history from an ardent insider's perspective. Remaking and reinterpreting were their stock in trade, from George Lucas's space operas and Martin Scorsese's urban Westerns to Brian De Palma's Hitchcock fixations. But audiences usually didn't follow these quirks so readily: Did anyone actually keep a tally of all the references to The Searchers and Vertigo? Wasn't seeing the movie at hand more important than remembering the ones it imitated?
Maybe the once-noble dream of breathing new life into a genre for an increasingly cine-literate audience has faded into the need to just get a movie contract, period--even if it means feeding the marketing frenzy for genre. Certainly, Coppola has seemed a little desperate in that way. But there's enough of his limber ability to twist on view in John Grisham's The Rainmaker, which follows a green lawyer named Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) as he scrounges up a job with a crooked guy named "Bruiser" Stone (Mickey Rourke--yes, really); hooks up with Bruiser's "para-lawyer" assistant, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito); and then hustles his first commissions. One of these involves a poor family suing an insurance company that has denied payment for a son's leukemia treatment, and this becomes the grandstanding focus of the plot. With any other old-fashioned director, the camera would start swirling and the music would swell and we'd probably end up with a wry freeze-frame on the hero as he celebrates a moral victory.
But Coppola is a more private virtuoso. He likes to embellish stuff that doesn't seem to merit attention. A simple example comes with Rudy's first court appearance: Where most movies would emphasize directly the greenhorn's vulnerability in an august setting and underscore the looming, wicked power of his opponent, Coppola takes comic diversions. The judge (Dean Stockwell) hacks away with smoker's cough. The mics are cranked up far too high for the room. The gaggle of sharp-suited lawyers on the defendant's side is countered by shrimpy DeVito (shot from a low angle most of the time) in his khaki cotton suit. The evil opponent himself is played by Jon Voight, slick as all get-out but just as ready as Larry, Moe, or Curly for some verbal slapstick. It's a genuinely magical moment.
But on a larger scale, at the level of plot rhythm and character motivations, Coppola's signature is sloppier and more distracting. In fact, what is The Rainmaker really trying to do? Build to a climactic finish? Explore Rudy's character? Coppola re-enlists Michael Herr, who wrote the face-saving voiceover narration in Apocalypse Now, but Rudy's comments veer wildly from rueful flashback to immediate explanation and abstract moralizing. The two subplots--involving Rudy's eccentric landlady (Teresa Wright) and an abused wife (Claire Danes) who becomes a love interest--are engaging at the level of character and performance, but both dawdle over familiar ideas once it's established how sweet a guy Rudy is.
This kind of "improvement" of a simple thing seems fitting from someone whose vineyard (self-supporting and profitable, mind you) sells only red wines, ranging from 20 to 60 bucks a bottle. Coppola is essentially the most operatic of American directors, and opera more than movies seems to be his operative metaphor: If you don't want to just tell a story, then sing it. If singing isn't quite enough, throw in some narrative trills. Build a fancy set. Do some intricate trio work. Bring your own daughter onstage if you have to. Then, when it's all over, throw your audience the sweaty handkerchief. And then see if they bother to pick it up.