'Class Action' presents predictable case

March 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Class Action" is like a play for two characters set in a mannequin warehouse. Everybody in this film besides its stars Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a stiff.

There's a handsome, venal lawyer (Colin Friels), an ardent black attorney (Larry Fishburne), a sanctimonious but pompous WASP corporate partner (Donald Moffat), an earthy earth mother (Joanna Merlin), a stuttering victim of corporate indifference (David Byron). . .and so on.

The gimmick is clever, but only intermittently effective. Jedediah Tucker Ward is a famous fightin' liberal lawyer, a Nader/Kunstler type who can trace his lineage back as far as the great Clarence Darrow. He's charismatic, mesmerizing and a bastard, a savior-tyrant type: He loves the People, but, subtract the article, and he has little use for people.

He has, in his daughter, managed to create his mirror opposite: Margaret "Maggie" Ward is a Reagan republican, who has signed on with a corporate law firm headquartered in some new downtown Flash Gordon building in San Francisco. She wants the fast track to the top floor and she doesn't care whom she has to burn to get it.

The case that sets the battlin' Wards at each other's throats involves Argus motors, which may or may not have sold a car a few years back that had a distressing propensity to explode under certain circumstances, not unlike the notorious Ford Pinto.

Jedediah senses money, fame and, most important, the validation of his ideological correctness; Maggie senses a partnership.

The movie veers awkwardly between courtroom maneuvering and emotional fireworks on the father-daughter front as the conflict rubs them bare and particularly as it forces her to confront the meaning and weight of his less than brilliant performance as a parent. Though ultimately it embraces values that have come to be mainstream and centrist -- anti-corporate -- it at least refuses to turn its liberal into a paragon. Jedediah has been a nasty, manipulative man; there's even a whiff of scandal HTC attached to his name because a whistle-blower he represented lost his job when the case went to trial and then later, in depression, committed suicide.

Thus there's a subtext of growth: Jedediah recoils, over the trial, from his long history of hypocrisy, and comes to live the values he's so valiantly defended over his life; meanwhile, his crass, aggressive daughter learns that her father's hypocrisy doesn't invalidate those values, as she had surmised, and she, too, comes to accept them.

For some reason, Mastrantonio is a little more believable than Hackman; perhaps it's that this old pro's mannerisms have become familiar and his tricks -- that self-deprecating laugh that ironically undercuts everything he says, that thrown-back head and broad grin -- no longer pack the punch. It's a great, fat role; but somehow, he always seems to be Gene Hackman, acting, rather than Jedediah Tucker Ward, being.

Mastrantonio has a bad scene -- having fricasseed a witness, she feels guilty and so stops off in a bar for a drink and a helping of self-pity; the scene feels like it's right out of a Mike Hammer movie -- but the character is somewhat more interesting, if only because it's fresh to the movies. She makes us feel Maggie's ambition without quite ever getting us to hate her.

Yet by the end, the movie doesn't quite work. Part of this, of course, is that the ending is never seriously in doubt. This, more ++ than anything, is because the milieu, the subsidiary characters, the legal case itself, are all perilously thin; you understand, almost instinctively and almost from the first few seconds, that the movie is so tepidly imagined that it wouldn't have the guts to confound expectations.

The political correctness of "Class Action" overwhelms its sense of life. It turns into just another movie.

'Class Action'

Starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Directed by Michael Apted.

Released by 20th Century-Fox.

Rated R.

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