March 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Firm (1993)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for March is a hit from the good old days of legal thrillers: the early 90's, when characters didn't preach (Michael Clayton), the bad guys weren't based on reality (Michael Clayton) and the stories didn't take themselves so seriously (Michael Clayton). The Firm is a commercially packaged blockbuster that doesn't try to be anything else. It's the anti-Michael Clayton in that respect and it's all the better for it.

Cashing in on the popularity of young novelist John Grisham, The Firm became the first - and, in my opinion, the best - of nine film adaptations of his books, the last being, of course, 2004's Christmas With the Kranks...?!

Opening in the summer of 1993, The Firm was an immediate hit with audiences, many of whom likely saw it multiple times out of devotion to Tom Cruise at the peak of his career. Critics weren't as kind as Joe and Jane Public, and even the few who praised the film complained about its 154-minute running time. In his middling review, Vincent Canby of the New York Times said it was "so slow that by the end you feel as if you've been standing up even if you've been sitting down." Rick Groen of the The Globe and Mail was more blunt: "it's long, it's cluttered, and it's trite."

Maybe it's long, but cluttered and trite? Well, not anymore than Grisham's novels were. That you could tell any of them apart in the first place was an accomplishment to be proud of, but that fact somehow never prevented me from picking up his "new" book every year. So why would the public reaction to the film adaptation be any different? Like all of Grisham's stories, The Firm offered a likable character in the midst of a struggle (Mitch McDeere), nasty villains out for blood (the partners at the firm), a sympathetic antihero (Avery Tolar), and colorful supporting characters (Tammy Hemphill and Eddie Lomax). The late director Sydney Pollack knew that it couldn't be considered "too long" if he was faithful to the novel, since viewers, like voracious readers, would follow the story intently to the end (Owen Gleiberman of EW even admitted, "The problem isn't so much that we can't deduce what's going on as that we aren't given time to enjoy it.").

But therein lies one minor problem: Pollack wasn't very faithful to the book. All of the characters were still in place but their motivations were different and the ending was accordingly changed. Instead of McDeere being a shrewd, morally unpredictable hotshot who retires to the Caribbean, he became in the movie a kind of Boy Scout, returning to Boston to presumably begin a career in pro-bono work for a nonprofit firm. This grated on a few critics ("Very little of what made the written version so enjoyable has been successfully translated to the screen," complained James Berardinelli), but I was fine with it. As with Jurassic Park later that summer, I found myself able to enjoy the entertainment value of both the novel and the book, despite their obvious differences.

Even conceding the issues with the length and the complaints about the modified plot, the one aspect of the movie that cannot be criticized is the acting. This is a top-notch cast firing all cylinders, completely committing to their characters in a movie that they must have known wouldn't receive award consideration. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances as McDeere as he allows himself to explore a range of emotions apart from his typical pride and tenacity. He churns one of these out every 2-3 years (and he's due now, the last one being Collateral), but this is one of my favorites because it came during a time when he knew could have just as easily taken any action or romantic comedy script.

The supporting cast was terrific as well, notably Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn (what happened to her?), but also Ed Harris and Hal Holbrook. Holly Hunter was good enough to earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work as Mitch's confidante Tammy Hemphill (she would later win Best Actress that year for The Piano), and don't forget memorable roles played by David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley, and Gary Busey.

Not to be thought of as an important movie from the 90's or a symbolic indictment of the American legal system, The Firm is good enough as it is: a commercial suspense thriller with great entertainment value and a star-studded cast. I would take that over a self-important (Michael Clayton) message movie (Michael Clayton) with cheap suspense (Michael Clayton) any day.


  1. The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for March is a hit from the good old days of legal thrillers: the early 90's, when characters didn't preach (Michael Clayton) and the bad guys weren't based on reality (Michael Clayton) and the stories didn't take themselves so seriously (Michael Clayton).

    So, I'm guessing you don't like Michael Clayton very much?

    Right on about this flick, I liked it a lot. Ok, so it's not Tarkovsky, but I enjoyed it a lot. And I was right there with you with Grisham, until he lost me six or seven years ago.

    And Jeanne Tripplehorn is currently terrific as wife number one in HBO's equally terrific "Big Love."

  2. I filed suit against Michael Clayton for overuse of clichés, unnecessarily showing the end of the movie at the beginning, and for trying to sell me the lie that George Clooney would have trouble managing a restaurant in NYC. And I hated the "bad dad" parts.

    But back to The Firm - I'm psyched that you enjoy it as well, especially considering your Southern sensibilities. But then again I think Grisham did well at portraying the South, avoiding stereotypes (mostly) but still showing what makes the region so unique.

    That being said, I haven't read one of his new books in at least 10 years now. There's only so many similar titles I can take, and it will be a while before he runs out of legal terms (he hasn't even used "The Judge" yet!):

    # The Firm (1991)
    # The Pelican Brief (1992)
    # The Client (1993)
    # The Chamber (1994)
    # The Rainmaker (1995)
    # The Runaway Jury (1996)
    # The Partner (1997)
    # The Street Lawyer (1998)
    # The Testament (1999)
    # The Brethren (2000)
    # The Summons (2002)
    # The King of Torts (2003)
    # The Last Juror (2004)
    # The Broker (2005)
    # The Appeal (2008)
    # The Associate (2009)

    According to Wikipedia, Shia LeBeouf has signed on for the film adaptation of The Associate, which just came out in January. Here's a funny review from Jonathan Rosenbaum: "Suffice it to say that The Associate bears many similarities to The Firm, even down to the two dust jackets, which both show shadowy young lawyers on the run. Plagiarism? No, because both books are by John Grisham. Those who believed, even for a moment, that I was suggesting impropriety will recognise this as the sort of false trail that Grisham uses to good effect . . . Though our hero believes himself to be in the clear, he goes along with the blackmailers' demands. The reader screams at him to call their bluff, but that would ruin the story. So we suspend our disbelief. Then, just as we have got used to the idea, he changes his mind and sets about trapping the blackmailers after all. And that's it."

    Isn't that "it" in all of his books?

    Ah, and Tripplehorn - I knew I'd seen her name somewhere recently, even though I haven't seen the show. Looks like she's playing Jackie Onassis in the upcoming HBO version of Grey Gardens as well.

  3. I believe THE RAINMAKER to be his best film adaptation, but I agree this is dire stuff, both book and film. I just checked out th enewest addition of Webster's and it has has it's first definition under "formula":

    formula (for-mu-luh) 1. Anything having to do with the author John Grisham in prose or the movies.

    THE FIRM wasn't all that bad as far as these things go. It was a frightening film, and I clearly remember my theatrical viewing of it. Normally I turn off to Tom Cruise though, but here he was passable. Only twice in his plolific career did I feel Cruise transcended his material and that was in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and MAGNOLIA.

    Excellent historical and analytical look at the film here!

  4. Haha, formula indeed - but LEGAL formula. I guess that's the norm on "Law & Order" and all of those network shows, but I've never watched them so the formula is still fresh. Interesting thing about The Firm is that there aren't actually any scenes that take place in a courtroom.

    Well I love Cruise in everything, but as I said he only churns out these performances ever few years. You've named two of them, and I'd also add Jerry Maguire, maybe Rain Man, and maybe Eyes Wide Shut. And Collateral. I also loved him in Tropic Thunder. It's a little worrisome that he doesn't have anything in production right now, though...

  5. Well, I'm definitely with you on The Firm - I find it to be an eminently rewatchable flick, and I'm probably all the better for having never read the entire book (I think I read the first couple chapters, but it was after I'd seen the film, and I find that to be a frustrating experience). In any case - I like that its set in Memphis, a town that doesn't get a ton of play in movies. I love the supporting characters - of course Hackman rules, but Wilford Brimley? Hal Holbrook? Creepy albino guy? Straithairn? It's got it all.

    All that said...I couldn't be much further from you in regards to Clayton. Not only do I find it to be a much better film overall, but I'm consistently surprised at how rewatchable it is on TV as well. It seemed too direct and stiff to hold up to the repeat viewing test, but it's doing a bangup job. And I turn into a big geek when it gets to the final showdown - it's just so perfect.

  6. Gotta love creepy albino guy. Actually wasn't he one of the cliched hoodlums in Michael Clayton as well? ;-P

    It will be tough for me to watch Clayton again and listen to Wilkinson's diatribe or sit through the father/son stuff, but I realize I'm in the minority on this one. It was a Best Picture nominee after all, and I don't think I'd turn it off if I came across it. I'd probably just sit and fume.

  7. Daniel -

    Thanks for sending me down Memory Lane with this post.

    I was vacationing in Grand Cayman (where some of "The Firm" was filmed) on the day this was released in 1993. It was the talk of the island that week - it played at the one and only movie theatre on Garnd Cayman for most of the duration of our trip. I didn't see it till I got home, but I read the book (as well as "The Pelican Brief" and "Jurassic Park") while laying on the beach.

    What I remember most about the film is that Holly Hunter was terrfic - the rest is kind of a blur. But I've seen this poppling on one or the other of Encore cable movie channels lately, so I'll think I'll check it out again.

  8. Make that "popping up on one or the other of the Encore movie channels."

    (Yes another misstyped comment!)

  9. Great story, Pat, and I hope you see it again soon. How weird to have been in the midst of the story like that, and funny that you read Jurassic Park as it came out that summer as well. I gotta get me to Grand Cayman one of these days...

  10. Interesting pick for Underrated Movie of the Month, Daniel.

    Too bad Rick stole my thunder as I was going to ask whether or not you actually liked Michael Clayton or not. :-)

    I still like Michael Clayton, though, because it nearly transceded the legal thriller--especially in my eyes because I thought the trappings of a law firm were mere decoration next to the themes of the film, and too many critics who even liked Clayton called it "high-end John Grisham" in my humble opinion.

    Nevertheless, I consider The Firm a fairly competent piece of work--Sydney Pollack's direction isn't as taut as his earlier work in the thriller genre, and the film is awfully long (and, I believe Roger Ebert was not incorrect when he labeled it "lugubrious"--rarely have I found a word fitting a film so comfortably), but the actors lend some credibility to the proceedings.

    In Tom Cruise's defense, I actually think he was on a virtual tear there for a while, from about Eyes Wide Shut to Magnolia (and he was even fierce in John Woo's ode to Hitchcock's Notorious, Mission: Impossible 2) to Vanilla Sky to Minority Report to the fairly bloated and ultimately disappointing The Last Samurai (but he was okay) to Collateral to War of the Worlds.

    Since then, though, his greatest work was in Tropic Thunder. I'm hoping he can find his groove again.

    And I do love the scene with Holly Hunter and Gary Busey (who I just recently celebrated a tiny bit in a review of Point Break at Coleman's Corner). It feels like it's from a completely different movie--one that is wholly alive, and I love that about it.

  11. Thanks for those thoughts, Alexander. It's interesting, I never even thought about Grisham while watching Michael Clayton, probably because no one had a Southern accent. And the length, well Ebert makes a fine point, but I still apply it to the book as equally as the film, so if I accept the length in one then I'll accept it in the other.

    Also bizarre that one of Sydney Pollack's final acting roles was in, of course, in Michael Clayton. Only now did that fact even occur to me.

    I hope Cruise finds his groove alright, but with nothing on the horizon I don't see how he's going to cash in on the mini-comeback he had last year.


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