Changes put 'The Firm' on shaky footing John Grisham's popular novel did not need to be 'fixed'

June 30, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

They're fixing again!

Oh, I love it when they fix! Here's John Grisham's "The Firm," a huge, huge, megahuge best seller that has delighted and transfixed millions of readers the globe over. And here's Sydney Pollack, whose last film, "Havana," was a megabomb of staggering proportions.

Obviously, Grisham doesn't know what he's doing. Obviously, Grisham's millions of readers don't know what they're reading.

Obviously, Pollack has to "fix" the story. The result leaves us a long way from Terra Firma.

The movie isn't a complete disaster, but when it diverges radically from the text in the final going to provide a "better" ending and spare Tom Cruise's Mitch McDeere from violating his professional obligations in order to achieve an unambiguous movie-star triumph, a free lunch as it were, the movie lurches toward incomprehensibility and away from emotional clarity.

One loses emotional contact with the complex gyrations and the relationships of the parts of the dense new plot gambit. Gone is the skillful, delicate, highly menaced but violence-free cat-mouse thing of the original, to be replaced with chases and fistfights, including a somewhat distasteful scene where Cruise kicks poor old Captain Oatmeal himself, Wilford Brimley, halfway to death with his Gucci loafer.

The movie is at its most engaging as it begins to perk along. It seems calibrated to the quintessential Cruise persona: a callow, smart, hustling and fundamentally valueless young man whose vanity and avarice get him into real trouble, where he has to discover strengths of character he never even suspected he had in order to survive. It's served him well from the beginning of his career, from "Risky Business" through "Top Gun" to "Rain Man" and "A Few Good Men."

Cruise's McDeere is graduating in the top five of his Harvard Law School class ("That's top five, sir," he smugly tells a corporate recruiter, "not top five percent."), entertaining the offers that such a performance necessarily merits, and looking forward to the good life as imagined by a poor boy from Kentucky who's scratched his way to the very top. The offers are all good; one of them, however, is very good.

Mitch and his wife relocate not to Wall Street or a Clinton-connected D.C. outfit, but to quaint old Memphis where he takes up remunerative duties as a first-year associate at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, enjoying among his perks a low-interest loan for a mansion and a Mercedes. He works like hell but all associates work like hell. And he's good too -- give the movie credit, it does a convincing job of suggesting the milieu of corporate law and how big firms invent ways to get their clients into deals for percentages of the profits.

But . . . Mitch begins to notice small notes of discordance. The firm, which is represented primarily by a distinguished and genteel Hal Halbrook oozing sanctimony from every pore and a sweatily avuncular Gene Hackman, is more than a mere "family;" it's a way of life, a creed, a religion, a despot, a master of all it surveys. Mitch isn't just watched, he's observed. His wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) begins to pick up the same queasy vibrations. And then there's the matter of several junior partners who died in "accidents" when they were planning to leave the firm.

At this point, the film is smart, pointed, chilling, convincing and achieves that kind of Hitchcockian atmosphere of threat without anything explicit ever breaking out from under the smooth surface. But at the halfway point, a whole new set of complications arrives, and at the three-quarter point, yet another set is dumped into the story -- the FBI and the Justice Department, Italian mobsters, a rogue brother, a ploy in the Caymen Islands, a gutsy secretary -- which begins to scramble desperately to keep itself straight and continue to accelerate.

Cheesy cinema conventions intrude: there's the albino hit man, who is usually played by Gary Busey, except in this case Gary Busey is the burnt-out private eye who is killed by the albino hit man in a gory shootout completely alien to Grisham's original.

The new ploy that Pollack and adapters Robert Towne and David Rayfiel have cooked up offers something which strikes me as absurd: The movie comes down not to a question of reporting to the feds on money laundering (and ipso facto breaking the client-lawyer confidentiality mandate) but on uncovering an overbilling scandal! Overbilling! Lawyers who charge too much money? Who'd have thunk it? Can Earth's foundations stand?

And Pollack makes a number of dumb decisions. In the original, the organized crime family for which the firm fronted remained abstract and therefore resonant; here, it's embodied by two dumpy Italian gangsters (including Paul Sorvino, fresh from "Goodfellas") that make the Mafia seem a movie cliche. And Pollack, for all his gymnastics, never gives us what might be called the money shot: We want to see the look on pompous Hal Holbrook's face when he realizes he's going down.

"The Firm" is engrossing summer movie making, but all the "improvements" don't help a bit. To use a Baltimore analogy, they're Formstone on a sturdy brick structure. You think: Whatever possessed them? If it wasn't broken, why on Earth did they think they had to fix it?

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Firm."

Starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.

Directed by Sydney Pollack.

Released by Paramount.

R-rated.

** 1/2 stars.

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