Confederacy of Dunces

A Time to Kill Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey.

The rest of the film's personality parade is sadly tattered (unlike, say, The Firm, which was saved by its onslaught of zesty supporting characters). Casting Sandra Bullock as the Ole Miss law review editor who volunteers her services for Carl Lee's defense only makes Jake look doltish. In order to get Bullock on-screen early (her go-getter doesn't show up till late in the book), Schumacher and Goldsman have her throw herself at Jake over and over. He rejects her help each time -- for no apparent reason. Bullock's appeal is beyond me, but after one solo hit (the execrable While You Were Sleeping) she's already doing star turns. Here she's a caricature of a smart (and smart-mouthed) Northerner whose feminism doesn't contradict her willingness to sleep with another woman's husband. Bullock pushes the bubbly likability so hard (and the wife's role is so badly written) that the audience doesn't bristle at her. Although it's always fun to watch Kevin Spacey, his politically ambitious prosecutor ends up a straw man to Jake. Jackson, for all his fire, proves it's impossible to play the conscience of a community, especially if from the outside he looks like a guilty conscience. Oliver Platt steals the show: He's original and uproarious as a cynical divorce lawyer who enlists with Jake for the trial. Platt has an almost-drunken ruminativeness that's more ticklish than the sloppy drunkenness of the elder statesmen on Jake's team, Donald Sutherland and M. Emmet Walsh; Platt's timing can be furry or fanged, and he consistently cracks up the audience, perhaps because his bemusement mirrors ours.

Since Grisham has vouched for the story's authenticity, the film may reap the benefits of what I call "The Fargo Syndrome": Though its people are subhuman and their actions loco, being certified as "real" can validate the movie in some minds. (Already, I can hear the yeasayers: "Haven't you ever seen a beer belly?") But this version of A Time to Kill doesn't have the shaggy, expansive array of details that gives readers the illusion that Grisham created a book of substance. What it does have are screen-filling views of actors' eyes and nostrils, and Elliot Goldenthal's banal music, which reaches its low point in Wagnerian trills when the brother of one of the dead men joins the Ku Klux Klan. (It's Kiefer Sutherland, in his downward-spiraling homicidal-maniac phase. What's next for Kiefer -- a creature feature?)

Because of the compression of the story and Schumacher's emphasis on the "cinematic," the Klan dominates the movie more than the novel. So does Grisham's checklist of unethical spokesmen, including black clergy and NAACP leaders, and Northern Jewish lawyers. To the filmmakers, the only uncomplicatedly good men are that avenging angel Carl Lee and his bonehead lawyer Jake, who's praised for his commitment and intelligence when Bullock provides the few legal coups. In the summation Jake urges the jury to let their minds go and shut their eyes and judge Carl Lee with their hearts. It's a dubious strategy -- does he hold that prejudice stems from the intellect? -- and it has nothing to do with the previous two hours of legal maneuvering. (Jake confesses as much, with choked-up pride and tears.)

When he tosses this Hail Mary pass, with the jury as his receivers, the filmmakers hope that movie fans will cheer him on. But by then, McConaughey's overhyped performance and Jake's overpraised tactics come off as demonstrations of a lower art than courtroom quarterbacking -- the contemporary Hollywood art of "just showing up."

A Time to Kill opens Wednesday, July 24, at area theaters.

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