Grisham's third is not a repeat offender 'THE CLIENT' TAKES THE STAND

July 20, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Grisham's Law states that bad books become bad movies, as "The Firm" and especially "The Pelican Brief" have proven. But it turns out not to be a universal mandate, only a regional ordinance, easily overthrown: "The Client," opening today, reverses it, proving that good movies can come from bad books.

The third of young Mississippian Grisham's best-selling books to be adapted to the screen in the last two years, "The Client" is smart, fast and amusing. How do I know? Well, as I write it's been four days since I saw it and . . . I still remember it!

Both "The Firm" and especially "The Pelican Brief" (the pits) vaporized from memory in what seemed like a nanosecond upon leaving the theater. You walked out and you thought, "I know, let's go see a movie!"

Whatever else it is, "The Client" is a real movie, at least in the sense that it provides three truly interesting characters and a driving (if not entirely credible) plot line. Its most potent thing is the tough and subliminally erotic fireworks between Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon as lawyers with clashing agendas. That's what'll sell tickets.

But it has subtler value, too; it's the first Grisham film that could be said to have a subtext. The linchpin in the plot is young Mark Sway (newcomer Brad Renfro), who, with his mother Dianne (Mary-Louise Parker) and his little brother Ricky (David Speck), lives in a trailer park outside Memphis, the desperately unnoticed rural poor. They talk in twangs that sound like gee-tar strings breaking, wear ratty clothes, have surly looks and sullen demeanors. In a crueler time they'd be dissed and dismissed by the ugly term "white trash," but it's the movie's stroke of genius to penetrate the cliche with an arrow of compassion and show us tough, resilient, courageous people clinging together in crisis. It's much more resonant than the absurdist yuppie anguish of "The Firm," where you were asked to invest in the key moral question: What happens if Tom Cruise loses his Mercedes-Benz?

What propels the plot is Mark's accidental observation of a suicide, as a distraught and drunken Mafia lawyer shoots himself after bringing Mark at gunpoint into his car and telling him his sad tale of woe, including the answer to a secret that the whole world wants to know.

This is where Grisham's somewhat infantile plotting first runs thumpingly into director Joel Schumacher's slick stylistics. It's a real battle, which Schumacher -- who directed "Falling Down," "Flatliners" and other glossy fantasies -- wins only by the kindness of the audience's heart, its willingness to choke down huge idiocies in order to get a roller coaster ride. (Why did the lawyer come up from Louisiana to suburban Memphis to kill himself? Movie never says. Why does he bring the boy into the car and threaten to kill him? Movie doesn't know. Why does he yammer out his secret? Movie has no idea.)

At any rate, the cops quickly realize that Mark may hold the answer to the secret (where a body is buried) and a high-powered, super-slick and ambitious federal prosecutor named Roy Foltrigg (Jones) comes up with his team to interrogate the boy. Realizing he's being used, the street-smart kid hires a lawyer, one Reggie Love (Sarandon), divorced former substance-abuser in the first or second year of her career.

As antagonists, Jones and Sarandon make a wonderful set, to say nothing of the optimistic message they convey that people well into their forties can be damned attractive. Schumacher is wise enough to let the two of them go at it hammer and tongs over the prime issue of the boy's testimony, which the prosecutor needs to advance his political cause and the boy knows will result in his death (New Orleans gangsters are tracking him to prevent him from testifying).

Sarandon, her googly eyes brimming with intelligence, parries Jones's imperiously confident thrusts, back and forth. Under the legal jousting, we feel we're watching an elaborate courtship dance. It's a subtle thing: One senses the way these two come to admire each other, and each lets us know in quiet ways, without any bloated exposition.

In other ways, the film isn't so hot. It features too many scurvy-looking hit men/private eyes who lurk menacingly in the shadows. (One, John Diehl, who's very good, would have been enough; the movie sort of forgets about him.) Then there's Anthony LaPaglia as the central villain, Barry the Blade Muldano, whose stupidity sets the whole plot in motion. Neither as a conceit (the dumb gangster) nor as a presence (spindly, unprepossessing) is this character a convincing force in the film. LaPaglia always seems boyish rather than menacing, and his stupidity badly undercuts the drama.

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