Francis Ford Coppola's Rainmaker is slick entertainment with a big political agenda

Hollywood is beating up on lawyers this season, making them look like the sleaziest bunch of professionals around. The Devil's Advocate gave us a high-powered, Manhattan firm whose senior partner was Satan, and now there's The Rainmaker, based on John Grisham's best-selling novel. It plunges us into the ethically murky world of insurance claims and ambulance-chasers. True to Grisham's proven formula, it's the big guys who're the most corrupt, and justice is served by inexperienced but honest small-time attorneys.

Acclaimed writer-director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather series) adds a humorous tone to the book, skillfully engaging our sympathy for the underdogs and amping up our hatred for the rich, powerful villains. But hidden among the laughter and the suspense is a strong political agenda about insurance companies and the legal profession.

Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a recent law-school graduate waiting to take his bar exam in Memphis, Tenn. He's hired by the affluent, disreputable defense attorney, Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), who has underworld ties and interests in strip joints.

The young man's salary will be determined by the volume of business he brings in. He's placed under the wing of Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), a so-called “paralawyer” who's failed his bar exam six times but knows how to recruit clients off their sick beds.

Rudy brings two cases of his own to the firm. The first is the estate of the eccentric Miss Birdie (Teresa Wright), who wants to cut her ungrateful children out of her will and leave everything to a televangelist. Rudy rents a room from the elderly lady and works weekends as a yardboy to keep the rent down.

His other case has greater potential, a poor, white-trash family who is suing the billion-dollar Great Benefit Company because it denied its claim for a bone-marrow transplant for their only son, Donny Ray (John Whitworth). Donny suffers from leukemia. Donny Ray's father (Red West), who was injured in Korea, isn't much help. He spends most of his time sitting and drinking in an abandoned car in the backyard. But his wife, Dot (Mary Kay Place), is certain she's been victimized and works hard with Rudy on the case.

Bruiser gets into trouble with the Feds over a money-laundering operation and disappears, leaving Rudy and Deck on their own to go up against a platoon of high-priced corporate lawyers. Great Benefit's senior attorney is the experienced, super-smooth John Drummond (Jon Voight), and the odds against the little guys winning seem long indeed. Rudy is barely familiar with courtroom procedure, and despite a sympathetic trial judge (Danny Glover) he's outmaneuvered almost every step of the way.

There is nothing that Drummond doesn't stoop to, including bugging Rudy's office. Fortunately, Deck enjoys operating at Drummond's level and out-maneuvers him on some of his shadiest ploys.

The love interest is Rudy's involvement with an abused woman, Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), whom he met while searching for clients at the hospital. Her husband, Cliff (Andrew Shue), likes to beat her up with an aluminum baseball bat. Rudy eventually persuades Kelly to stand up for her rights, but the overwrought melodrama that follows belongs in a different movie. The film-maker treats the subject in a straight-ahead, obvious manner, with none of the brilliant invention used in his telling of the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, Donny Ray dies, and this spurs Rudy to believe that more is at stake than making a quick buck. He puts the head of Great Benefit (Roy Scheider) on the stand and springs a surprise witness to bolster his client's claims.

The Rainmaker keeps its viewers wondering as to the outcome until the very last moment and then sweetens the experience with a few surprises. But the film's portrait of defense attorneys is seriously flawed. The movie suggests that corporations are almost always in the wrong, and that those who sue them are justified in cutting corners because of the greater evil which big business represents.

In one of his pleas to the jury, Rudy argues that Great Benefit's dirty tricks show the reason the country needs government-subsidized health insurance and that tort reform would hurt little people like them and the dead Johnny Ray. This is overstating the case. During its fight for federally backed health care, even the Clinton administration's most ardent supporters never claimed that the legislation should be enacted because of the pervasive criminality of insurance companies.

Tort reform, with caps on the amount of money a plaintiff can collect, was one of the hot-button issues of the 1994 Republican Revolution and its Contract with America. Conservatives argue that huge claims often awarded to plaintiffs greatly inflate the cost of doing business for the companies involved, and that such expenses are usually passed on to the consumer through higher prices. The Rainmaker fails to highlight these points.

Furthermore, you'd never guess from the film that most trial lawyers are much more affluent and powerful than Rudy and Deck and that their lobbying association is one of the best financed and heaviest hitting operations in the political arena, with great influence in the Democratic Party. They worked with the Clinton administration to defeat tort reform in Congress despite the measure's wide support

The Rainmaker is a slick, enjoyable piece of entertainment. But its makers use comic plot twists and big, heart-tugging moments to disguise a controversial message which the general public might otherwise be unwilling to accept.

The USCC classification of The Rainmaker is A-III: adults. The Motion Picture Association of America Rating is PG-13.

REGISTER arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.