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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 11/26/1997,

The Rainmaker

Which do we hate more, lawyers or insurance companies? Francis Ford Coppola's genial adaptation of John Grisham's simplifies the choice by making his hero such an idealistic goodie-goodie that even he can't stand the legal profession. Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon, who comes across as a young James Stewart -- say, age 12) is a recent law-school graduate who gets his start chasing ambulances for the sleazy law office -- complete with a fish tank full of pet sharks -- of Bruiser Stone (an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke). With paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito, stealing scenes just by eating his lunch), Rudy opens up his own business, taking on bottom-feeding cases like that of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), whose son is dying of leukemia because her insurance company refused to cover his treatment.

Call it The Infirm. Of course, the plight of the dying boy plus the plush corruption of the insurance company's attorney (a splendidly oily Jon Voight) transforms Rudy into a crusader. Coppola manages to subdue the melodramatics and platitudes and shameless sentimentality with as much cornpone -- a derelict car in a backyard harboring cats, Dean Stockwell as a catarrhal hanging judge, and Rudy's sardonically drawled voiceover narrative, written by Michael Herr -- as was dished out in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's slight material, certainly not sufficient to carry the domestic-violence/love-interest subplot involving Claire Danes as a battered young wife. Even Coppola slumming (and what else has he done in the past two decades) is worth a look, however -- the work of a once world-class filmmaker deserves respect. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

-- Peter Keough