NEW YORK — Hollywood movies have always been eager to capitalize on legal proceedings, which is hardly surprising, given the built-in drama that trials often have. Two new pictures, both inspired by popular books, take us into Southern-style courtrooms.
But that's all they have in common. The Rainmaker, adapted by Francis Ford Coppola from John Grisham's bestseller, zeroes in on a Tennessee lawsuit fought by a novice attorney against a corporate enemy. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, directed by Clint Eastwood from John Berendt's nonfiction novel, uses a murder trial for dramatic impact while devoting its main energy to portraits of eccentric characters in the colorful city of Savannah, Ga.
The hero of "The Rainmaker" is Rudy Baylor, a recent law-school grad who takes the only job he can find: ambulance-chasing for the benefit of a low-grade shyster who's more interested in profits than professionalism. Rudy hates this sleazy corner of the legal scene, yet he rather likes his new assistant, a venturesome hustler whose only claim to fame is having flunked the bar exam six times. This is hardly distinguished company. Rudy surmounts his lowly status, though, by taking on a handful of cases he truly believes in.
Grisham's novel is long and loquacious enough to follow Rudy through every twist and turn of his new career. Coppola's movie is more condensed, even with a running time of 2-1/4 hours, and some of the plot's surprises are sprung abruptly enough to seem arbitrary or even gimmicky. Also disappointing is the film's failure to develop any of the female characters in much depth. Some women have significant scenes, but they're mostly portrayed as victims with few inner resources to fall back on.
"The Rainmaker" provides pleasures as well as problems, though. The acting is generally smart, and Coppola has directed the movie with his usual keen attention to atmosphere, texture, and detail. While it's not in the league of "The Conversation" or "Apocalypse Now" or the first two "Godfather" pictures, it's a sturdy achievement that spins a persuasive story while taking unobtrusive note of some troubling contradictions - can money buy justice? Do criminals deserve a good defense? Do underdogs always win? - that are integral to the American judicial system.
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" begins when a New York journalist named John Kelso arrives in Savannah, Ga., to cover a social event for a magazine. Just when he thinks his little task is completed, one of his new friends - an antiques dealer widely known in the community - is arrested for killing a wild-living young employee during a ferocious argument. Staying in town to write about the trial, John makes the acquaintance of various offbeat folks, including a stagestruck transvestite and a woman who weaves voodoo spells in the dead of night.
Berendt's book is as much a Georgia travelogue as a murder-trial narrative, and Eastwood steeps the movie version in moody Southern charm. He also soft pedals the tale's most sensationalistic aspects, although the picture earns its R rating with rough language and much material focusing on gay sexuality.
Eastwood's biggest miscalculation is to shorten the book's engrossing series of trials, thus diminishing its insights into the all-too-human factors (including bigotry) that can sway a courtroom's search for truth.
The picture's most impressive asset is Kevin Spacey's superbly crafted performance as the accused man. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack music, a sweet-sounding potpourri that was surely assembled by Eastwood himself, a jazz connoisseur who numbers the excellent "Bird" among his directorial credits.
* "The Rainmaker," rated PG-13, contains a violent fight and scenes of physical and emotional suffering.
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," rated R, contains foul language, violence, and much material dealing frankly with homosexual behavior.