"The Rainmaker" is the fifth page-to-screen adaptation of a John Grisham bestseller (the previous ones included "The Firm", "The Pelican Brief", "The Client", and "A Time to Kill"), and is easily the best one. Under the careful crafting of Francis Ford Coppola, this Grisham story shines despite the familiar Grisham territory that it treads-- the legal underdog versus the well-heeled corporate conglomerate.
Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a young lawyer, fresh out of Memphis law school, his head full of ideals and an insatiable thirst for 'making the world a better place, one case at a time' (much like the protagonists in any previous John Grisham adaptation). Coming from a poor family, where his father beat him and his mother (set-up!), Rudy supported himself tending bar where he would serve his rich and arrogant designer-clothes-sporting colleagues (another set-up!). Desperate to get experience and money to support himself, he takes a job with the shady Brewser Stone (Mickey Rourke, redeeming himself for "Double Team"), whose holdings include not only a law practice, but also the strip club across the parking lot from it. He is partnered with the ethically-challenged Deck Schifflet (Danny DeVito), a 'para-lawyer'-- the only thing preventing him from practicing law is the bar exam, which he has failed six times. While Rudy is being shown by his new co-worker the subtleties and nuances of ambulance-chasing, he befriends Kelly Riker (Claire Danes, last seen in "U-Turn"), a young woman who has been hospitalized on several occasions because of an abusive husband who punishes her with an aluminum baseball bat. However, the main focus of his efforts is a case that he has been building since his student days-- assisting Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), whose leukemia-stricken son, Donny Ray (Johnny Whitworth), is unable to have a life-saving bone marrow transplant because their insurance company, Great Benefit, has rejected eight attempts to have the procedure covered.
Rudy quickly finds that he is outgunned in the courtroom, facing a team of highly-paid lawyers being retained by Great Benefit, led by the oily Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight, finally with a decent role after "Anaconda" and "U-Turn"). As the machinations of the lawsuit become drawn out, Rudy and Deck find themselves subject to the dirty tricks of the Great Benefit legal team, which our protagonists, in a series of hilarious crowd-pleasing moments, manage to reverse. Meanwhile, Kelly becomes increasingly trapped by her abusive husband, and Rudy must go beyond the provisions of law to protect her.
Clocking in a 2 hours and 15 minutes, "The Rainmaker" covers a lot of ground-- in fact, there is enough material in the book for at least two separate movies. Of course, to boil down a 400-page novel into a movie following the classical three-act dramatic structure is difficult, but Coppola, who also penned the screenplay, has done an admirable job, though the Kelly subplot was wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly (now, contrast this to the hatchet job that was done on "The Firm"). But despite the extended length, the pacing is excellent and there is never a dull moment, especially with the courtroom cat-and-mouse game between Rudy and Leo. And when it's time for the pay-off in the movie's resolution, you certainly won't be disappointed.
Another factor contributing to the success of "The Rainmaker" is the high-quality powerhouse acting from the talented cast. Matt Damon brings a certain sincerity and earnestness to the role of Rudy, a marked contrast to the Matthew McConnaughey's forced performance in "A Time to Kill", which seemed to lack these qualities. Danny DeVito is always entertaining in whatever role he plays, and he is perfectly cast as the leg man who is unafraid of scrounging through garbage cans to win a case-- a role that he plays with great enthusiasm. Jon Voight is the perfect antithesis to Matt Damon, with an icy smoothness to his portrayal of everything that's wrong with the legal profession. The cast is also rounded out by a whole slew of memorable small performances-- Dean Stockwell, Danny Glover, Roy Scheider, Randy Travis (yup, that's him in the jury box), and Virginia Madsen (who has come quite a ways from the R-rated 'sexual thrillers' that she made in the late-Eighties).
Having seen several John Grisham novels adapted for the screen (some of which Grisham had wanted to have his name removed from the credits), I wasn't expecting much from "The Rainmaker". Just another underdog lawyer having his day... *yawn*....
Boy was I ever wrong.