John Grisham is the literary equivalent of the Hollywood dream factory.
His stories are morality plays that, with a few exceptions,
have strictly defined good vs. evil dynamics that play themselves
out against epic backdrops meant to appeal to universal beliefs.
His characters are avatars that illustrate the most basic
concepts of right and wrong, and they have easy-to-pronounce
theatrical names that, just by the sound they make rolling
off the tongue, tell you pretty much everything you need to
know about them. Rudy Baylor. Reggie Love. Darby Shaw. Mitch
And Nicholas Easter, the jauntily bemused hero of Runaway
Jury (as usual, Hollywood dropped the ďTheĒ when it optioned
the book, the better to fit on marquees, I suppose). Played
by John Cusack with his familiar mix of irony and borderline
pathos, Easter is one of those heroes who comes on the scene
all puzzled by the situation heís found himself in, only later
to be revealed as the one behind the curtain controlling the
levers. (I didnít ruin anything for you; we find this out
not long after the story gets started.) His motives arenít
clear, naturally, and there is a tiny bit of conflict between
accepting his morals and his ethics as not mutually exclusive,
but all in all, heís a character constructed in the grand
tradition of David and his slingshot. Called to jury duty,
his place in the grand scheme seems arbitrary at first. But
aided by his accomplice and girlfriend, Marlee (Weisz,
giving this boyís club a great big shot of feminine intelligence
straight to the heart), Easter is determined to sell this
jury to the highest bidder.
The film opens with an office massacre that takes the life
of a devoted family man played by an uncredited Dylan McDermott.
We know heís a devoted family man because, before we see his
murder, the writers make certain to show him at his little
boyís birthday party, helping him blow out the candles, before
going in to his office with the family pictures on the desk.
After he is killed, his wife (Joanna Going, not really
allowed to do anything more than demand promises of victory
from her attorney) decides to sue the manufacturer of the
gun used in her husbandís murder.
The typical legal thriller would proceed from this point
in following the trial, going behind closed doors to bear
witness to the lawyers having their dramatic crises of conscience,
doing their best to drum up a case without compromising their
integrity. But this is where Runaway Jury diverges
from the path, and is also why itís Grishamís best book. Instead
of showing us outbursts of lawyerly passion and fists slammed
on desks, the story focuses on the jury selection, its process,
and the politics and unsavory dealing that go on when trying
to secure a verdict.
I donít know enough about the legal process to even speculate
whether any of this rings true. But it does make for good
entertainment, even if it is a little cookie-cutter in the
undertaking. As usual, Gene Hackman is a pleasure to
watch, as the jury scout for the defense, who will stop at
nothing, be it the passing of money, personal threats, or
home invasion, to swing the jury to his clientís side. And
Dustin Hoffman, as the widowís attorney, plays honorable
and dignified while keeping sappiness far and away. They only
have one true scene together, a bathroom tÍte-ŗ-tÍte where
they each confront the other over his lacking points, and
to see these two acting titans shout and finger-point and
overstep each otherís lines, all the while keeping true to
that Method tenet of less-is-more, is the inarguable high
point in this big heaping of enjoyable Hollywood corn.