Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lawyering Up

Film: The Client
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Courtroom drama is its own special thing. I tend to like courtroom dramas, or at least I’m predisposed to give them the benefit of the doubt. With The Client, we’ve got an hour of getting to the courtroom and then the courtroom, and just as soon as we’re in the courtroom, we’re out of it again. I suppose that makes The Client more of a legal thriller than a courtroom drama. We’ve also got mob hitmen, a dead lawyer, and a truly surprising cast. The Client is based on a novel by John Grisham, which means we’re in for high drama and lawyers being both villains and heroes. So let’s jump in with both feet, shall we?

Young Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his younger brother Ricky (David Speck) are out in a forest outside of Memphis killing off a summer afternoon smoking cigarettes Mark stole out of the purse of his mother (Mary-Louise Parker). Not too long after they arrive, a mob lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz) shows up with the intent to kill himself by running a hose from his tailpipe into his car. Mark removes the hose, and when he tries to do this a second time, Romey catches him and drags him into the car. While Mark does manage to get out, he also manages to leave a number of traces of himself inside the Cadillac. He also learns the location of the body of Louisiana Senator Boyd Boyette, missing for about a month.

This sets of a whirlwind of activity. Since Mark is just 11, it’s not hard for the police to figure out that Mark knows a lot more than he’s telling. Since what Mark knows is potentially part of a high profile case, it also attracts the attention of the FBI and the Louisiana states attorney, a politically ambitious, scripture-spouting lawyer named Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones).

Of course, Mark has also attracted the attention of the mob, particularly a man named Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia), the man responsible for the disappearance of the senator. Since he’s being watched by the FBI and the local authorities, he sends off his associate Paul Gronke (Kim Coates) to silence the kid. Gronke hires a local “investigator” named Nance (John Diehl) to help him locate Mark. It turns out locating Mark isn’t that difficult, since Mark’s brother Ricky has been effectively comatose since Romey’s suicide and is holed up in a hospital bed.

What’s a kid to do? Hire a lawyer, of course. He winds up with Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who takes the case for all of Mark’s money—a single dollar. And with that, she goes to bat for him, trying to keep him safe from the men trying to kill him and equally safe from the legal system that sees him as little more than a means to an end.

I wasn’t kidding when I said The Client has a surprising cast. J.T. Walsh, Bradley Whitford, Anthony Heald, and William Sanderson show up as members of various legal jurisdictions and the FBI. Will Patton shows up as a cop with surprisingly evil methods if not intent. Anthony Edwards gets a few scenes as Reggie’s assistant/clerk. We also get a couple of scenes from a not-yet-so famous William H. Macy as a doctor and from cinematic statesman Ossie Davis as the judge.

There’s a surprising amount of tension created in the film. A great deal of that is because Mark is a frustrating character, but he’s frustrating in a completely believable way. This is a kid who has been constantly kicked down by the world around him. His father was abusive and his mother far too young to have had him in the first place. He’s got real trust issues, and Brad Renfro plays it pretty well. Mark’s not an easy kid to like, but he’s a very easy person with whom to sympathize.

Where the film takes a bit of a wrong turn for me is not in the casting of Susan Sarandon (who is as good as she normally is) but in her character. Reggie is a recovered alcoholic who became drug-dependent and lost in a booze haze when her husband divorced her and took the kids in the custody hearing (taking the kids after writing her drug prescriptions and using that as evidence of her lack of fitness, no less). The story gets heavy-handed with her evident need to protect Mark as something like a surrogate parent. She’s certainly a lot more relevant to Mark through the story than his mother is.

Because of this, The Client ends up feeling a bit ponderous and overwrought. There’s no real need to give us this sort of pseudo-redemptive character arc for Reggie to become the mother she couldn’t be to her own child. Running from hitmen and dealing with aggressive state’s attorneys should be enough plot elements to make the story work. The Client suffers in that it seems to want to pack too much into the story to keep the audience interested, and it ends up being overkill and unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong; The Client is a solid watch and a pretty good thriller. It’s hard to be the cast of immediately recognizable faces, many playing roles that seem very different from a lot of what they are better known for. It’s good and well-made, and demonstrates that Joel Schumacher could pull off a pretty good movie when he wasn’t playing for camp. But it still feels like there’s too much here, and trimming out some unnecessary emotional baggage would ultimately make for a cleaner and more easily digested drama.

Why to watch The Client: There’s a surprising amount of action and tension created in the plot.
Why not to watch: For all of that tension, it comes off feeling artificial.


  1. After reading and liking A Time to Kill, The Firm, and The Pelican Brief I picked up The Client and it frustrated the hell out of me. Grisham couldn't figure out any way for the reader to not know the important info without taking the lazy way out and just having the kid refuse to tell anybody anything. It made for a bad read and I still consider it Grisham's worst book. I've now read Lee Child's books and he does the same thing early in his career. I guess it's sign of how experienced an author is if they don't have to resort to it.

    Considering that, I didn't watch this movie for a while. When I finally did they had moderated the kid some, but I still couldn't get the book version out of my head and I didn't care for this movie much.

    1. I get that there are kids who get that headstrong way to them and can't be told anything, but Mark is powerfully dumb in places here. That pulls me out of the story a bit, too.

      I don't think this is a bad film--the cast helps a hell of a lot--but it's not the story I was hoping it would be.

  2. That arc of Reggie being a pseudo parent to Mark is in line with the book though of course the book was able to go into more depth about it. In the book Mark was less of a special case since a lot of Reggie's focus in her practice was on child protection. I didn't think it was overkill since Mark has trust issues and for him to really turn to Reggie with his secrets she has to assume a paternal position.

    I really liked the movie and Susan Sarandon in it though I was initially disappointed that they had made her character younger, Reggie was closer to 50 or just past it in the book. But Sarandon is so strong in the lead I quickly let that go. She and Tommy Lee Jones have a great sandpapery chemistry and even though they are on opposite side they have an obvious respect for each other.

    I preferred the book, though that's usually the case, but this is a solid entertaining adaptation. And that supporting cast can't be beat.

    1. Susan Sarandon can make a lot of roles work. I wasn't aware that the character in the book was older--in the case of the film, it makes that hurt of losing her kids a lot closer, which merely feeds into the parent/child relationship she develops with Mark.

      "Sandpapery" is a great way to describe that relationship. They have a really interesting and completely believable chemistry on screen. I get the impression that they're kind of attracted to each other but are having more fun being rivals and are content to leave it at that.

      And damn, but that cast is really special. I'm a big fan of William Sanderson and I love seeing John Diehl doing something with some range; whenever I see him I think "Crusier" from Stripes, and he's not that character at all here. For me, though, Anthony LaPaglia Kim Coates are really well cast. Both of them (especially Coates) are great at playing a completely amoral villain.

    2. Glad you mention Anthony LaPaglia he has a lot of fun with the unbridled ruthlessness of Barry Muldano, he usually plays characters who are so contained even if they have a great deal of anger.

      There's so many great bits to choose from but I think my favorite is Ossie Davis's tough but understanding judge and his putting Rev. Roy and his minions in their place. The dialogue is more or less lifted verboten from the book but Davis's facial expression and line readings add just the right spin to make it memorable.

    3. Ossie Davis is great in his short moments on screen. Then again, I always want more Ossie Davis.

      Whenever I see him, I want to think of Bubba Ho-Tep, but I almost always remember him as Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing.