Classic Hollywood Spotlight: ‘The Rainmaker’

The RainmakerI’m going to go back on something. Is that what they call it nowadays? Going back on something? Anyhow, last week I bent over backwards trying to comprehend the sheer badness of Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, but now, having just watched Coppola’s The Rainmaker, I have a much simpler way of understanding why Jack is so bad. Francis Ford Coppola’s fatal flaw is sentimentality. Really. All of his weaker films – The Rain People, One from the Heart, The Godfather III and Jack – are grand symphonies of sentimentality. I would go so far as to say thait his four masterpieces – The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now – are masterpieces exactly because they depict characters who fight with all their power to achieve a world of perfect sentiment – and fail. Which, naturally, is Coppola’s story as well.

After watching every single Coppola movie I think it’s possible to appreciate 1997’s The Rainmaker for the wonderfully well-balanced acheivement that it is. In this movie, Coppola manages what he hasn’t pulled off in two decades. He makes a totally compotent movie that neither idulges in sentimentatlity nor falls into cynicism. The Rainmaker depicts a world in which sentiment and cynicism coexist, where every victory comes at a price, and where nobody gets exactly what they want.

The Rainmaker’s probably the best movie based on a John Grisham novel. Roger Ebert, of all people, put it well when he pointed out that while most Grisham adaptations pare the story down to a single dramatic action, as movies tend to do, The Rainmaker puts us into the world of being a lawyer. Matt Damon’s Rudy Baylor navigates multiple clients in this story, and each one has their own needs and problems. The fluid and engaging way Coppola moves Rudy through his clients worlds brings us into the struggles of a young man who still believes that the law can bring justice to the innocent. Where does he get to by the end of the story? You won’t know until you get there. The Rainmaker isn’t Jack. It isn’t The Converstation either, but it’s solid, compotent and consistently engaging.

If Jack was a slog and Apocalypse Now is an epic journey, then The Rainmaker is a nice ride. Coppola gets out of the way and lets the whole thing just sort of roll out, but at the same time it’s got just the right amount of political bite – not over the top, not bang on your head, but flowing naturally from story and character.

It isn’t the capstone of a consitently brilliant career. It doesn’t reach the heights of Coppola’s four masterpieces, but it is a solid piece of entertainment that has a wholesome thread of social consciousness to make you feel like you’ve had a healthy meal. To mix a few metaphors.

With The Rainmaker, I’m going to wrap up this survey of the films of Francis Ford Coppola. His more recent work, Youth Without Youth and Tetro, can hardly be considered classic. They’re far too recent, and I think it’s important to watch this third act of Coppola’s career play out before we can understand what it all means.

I come out of all of this with a great deal of love for Francis Ford Coppola. Yes, love. Not brotherly love or familial love, but the kind of love one can’t help but aquire when looking at the life of a person who worked hard to realize his vision. Coppola didn’t succeed all the time, and when he’s bad, he’s really bad. But with only a couple exceptions, Coppola fought to bring his singular vision, artistic ambition, full heart, and social consciousness to his films. And he always brought a technical expertise to his work that bears study from fillmmakers for years to come.

He’s an American artist we’re lucky to have. And I, for one, am glad that he’s finally at place where he can make the movies he wants to make. I honestly think he deserves it.