Taking the right course of action, the road that leads to moral and personal justification is the road most travelled in Hollywood. Time and time again, producers offer the story of someone that perseveres through all the odds to see that justice is served. More often than not, we as an audience merely hope such goodness happens in reality when we also know that it is far from the truth. The Rainmaker, then, is one such film. It is filled with bad people, but those few good eggs that shine through like diamonds in the rough are trying to make the world a better place.
In this instance, those diamonds are the surprisingly strong pairing of a fresh-faced Matt Damon and Danny DeVito, who was coasting on the height of his popularity, churning out quality appearance after quality appearance. They are on the hunt for a big case that will cement themselves both as lawyers who get results. Rudy Baylor (Damon) is the young and plucky lead, while Deck Shifflet (DeVito) is the not-so-old, not-so wizened hand that will guide them to greatness. Therein lies the problem with both of them, though, we are rooting for lawyers. Suckers of the Earth, and the narrative of many films is that they are out to stick it to the hard workers.
While The Rainmaker goes to great lengths in trying to display emotional range in these leading characters, it is a hard pill to swallow. How can we root for Baylor and his good intentions if he is swindling an apartment from an old woman and barging into hospital rooms with Shifflet looking to shake a few dimes from the most recent sucker or sufferer? It is not as if he himself leads the charge on the latter offences, but it is his inaction that works up his character the most. He is uncomfortable, clearly, but is wanting to get his foot in the door of the law firm he vaguely represents. “A hooker will stop screwing you after you’re dead” Baylor chips in narration, to who or why is of no real interest. Hell, everything he does is bumbling happenstance or light moments of comedic back and forth with Colleen (Teresa Wright).
Still, romance is bound to blossom, for it gives us some time away to the stuffy offices Baylor finds himself forced into. Kelly Riker (Claire Danes) is well cast and likeable. Her suffering is Baylor’s suffering, which is ours to the third degree. We assume a basic level of care for these characters not because of what they do, but because of the position they find themselves in. There is a level of discomfort found in Damon’s performance that plays well with their relationship and dynamic. He is an ambulance chaser and could spring the question of lawsuits and litigation on her at any moment, especially in their early moments sharing the screen.
When trying to balance so much, something shall inevitably slip. Francis Ford Coppola is a satisfying storyteller, just look to The Godfather for the prime example of how he makes for compelling, layered storytelling. Where The Rainmaker gets it wrong, then, is the sentimentalism. We have the romance kindling between Riker and Baylor, the hard work of two men putting a case together with Baylor and Shifflet, alongside a case of corruption embodied by Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), a separate case concerning a leukaemia client and a message of warning against corporate America. It has the range, but not the scope. The two must be present, but Coppola has, it seems, only the strength for one.
The Rainmaker is unlike anything Coppola has made before. I do not mean this as a compliment. It is a film that feels static and standard. A man of his talents is indisposed here. While it is nice to have him at the helm, The Rainmaker does not utilise his slow-burning tensions but instead shows a festering frustration that pushes Baylor and his allies to their breaking point. It is the satisfaction we are in waiting for, and once the rush of a job done well finally fades, what are we left with? We are offered a somewhat decent courtroom drama, one that does not push the envelope for innovation. It riffs on scenes and ideas similar to that of The Verdict, but with feebler success. It is the tale of the underdog that we love to consume and are willing to appreciate, even when such a story is underwhelming.