Confederacy of Dunces

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

By now, the John Grisham legal-eagle movie factory has split in two: There's the upscale conspiracy outfit, which manufactures overly elaborate big-star thrillers like The Firm and The Pelican Brief, and the courtroom drama assembly line, which trundles out socially conscious ensemble pieces like The Client and A Time to Kill. Going in, the latter group has an edge for critics, since it unites popular melodrama with bleeding-heart sentiments. And The Client was the most entertaining Grisham adaptation (with The Firm a moderate second), largely because at their best Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones overshadowed the plot, as did the movie's blockbuster version of a Eureka! revelation: Our social machinery chews up the poor.

But Grisham's latest big-screen Southern Gothic, A Time to Kill, offers a Confederacy of dunces. It's a courtroom drama that takes forever to get to the courthouse; when it does, barely a funny or enlightening thing happens on the way to the verdict. This movie has a finger-wagging temperament and a bumptious manner -- it's both holier and stupider than thou. The Grisham surrogate and hero, small-town Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), hopes to get his black client, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), declared not guilty of the murder of two white men who raped and tortured his daughter -- by reason of insanity. A Time to Kill comes out fervently in favor of vigilantism, so long as the victims are monster rapists.

The movie could use the insanity plea: It insists that the audience take ludicrous notions as givens. You may get hooked at the beginning, when the two Aryan thugs grab the 10-year-old black girl while she's bringing home groceries. The rape is done in quick, blurred cuts from the girl's point of view, promising a modicum of restraint. Still, even then I had some doubts. Immediately before their crime, would the brutes (locals at that) go into a black general store and magnetize everyone's attention by casually terrorizing the citizenry? Do they have to look like irredeemable scuz -- does one of them have to sport a belly like Dan Aykroyd's backside in a Saturday Night Live skit? (Would they have been harder to condemn if they resembled, say, Matthew Broderick?) Those questions may keep you skeptical, even when the rescued youngster poignantly apologizes to her dad for dropping the groceries, or when Jackson shows flashes of his usual power in big, baleful close-ups. Before long, the portrait-heavy style and overemphatic dialogue and staging weigh you down. Fifteen minutes in, when Carl Lee decides to take the law into his own hands, you've been beaten into submission or become the audience equivalent of a hostile witness.

It's one thing to present a case in which either a guilty or not guilty verdict could be justified; it's another to set a movie up that way, then slant everything to one side. It should be tragic to see a bereaved father aim an automatic rifle at a couple of lamebrained walking ducks and accidentally hit the deputy guarding them en route to their arraignment. (Doctors end up amputating the deputy's leg.) Unfortunately, the director, Joel Schumacher, underscores the action with the gospel song "Precious Lord" -- sanctifying the double murder. Schumacher and the screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, alternately editorialize in that Bible-thumping fashion or commit stunning ineptitude. What's amazing is that they comprise two-thirds of the team that did The Client. (Robert Getchell received co-credit on that script; maybe he was responsible for the punch and humor of the dialogue between Sarandon and Jones, and between them and the youthful Brad Renfro.) Here Schumacher and Goldsman stay in their Batman Forever mode.

Except for pitting blacks against whites, they've forgotten how to establish dramatic parameters. We're supposed to buy that Carl Lee's hometown would be too racist to convict two white men, simply because blacks make up a mere quarter of the population. But a quarter is substantial by national standards, and early on we're introduced to a genteel white population who'd want to clean white trash off the streets, and a popular black sheriff who swings his club freely (and otherwise doesn't seem too competent a cop: It takes him the entire movie to find a Klansman in his ranks). The filmmakers want us to deny the evidence of our senses and rely on the narrative equivalent of hearsay.

Similarly, after Carl Lee exacts his revenge, we're led to believe that his trial will be a test of the town's prejudice. Excuse me -- didn't he kill two men and mutilate a deputy? The real test would have been the rapists facing the gospel music in court. (Now, that would be a reason to sing "Precious Lord.") In the ensuing trial, NiceFella Jake shamelessly plays the race card -- as acceptable to middle-class audiences in defense of a poor black man as it is unacceptable in defense of a rich black man. When that doesn't work, Jake plays the parent card.

The avalanche of promotion to the contrary, McConaughey registers as a computer composite of Redford and Newman and Nolte and Pitt. To be fair, he's persuasive as a virile, good-looking regular guy with yuppie aspirations. But he plays too many scenes with a half-smile, presumably so we'll be moved when Jake finally breaks down and cries before the jury. Anyway, like so many white-bread heroes conceived by crank-it-out best-seller writers like Grisham and Crichton, Jake is a glorified blank -- defined more by his Victorian fixer-upper and the prettiness of his wife and daughter than he is by any clear signs of character. The personal drama hinges on Jake's domestic feelings: He believes that he would have done the same as Carl Lee. (Carl Lee admits to Jake before the shooting that he's considering homicide -- and in the script, unlike the novel, Jake doesn't tell the sheriff.) Too bad the movie is a disaster in the domestic department. This may be the first time a family dog fails to lodge in an audience's memory: When Jake calls for his beloved canine Max after the Ku Klux Klan burns his house, you might think he's had a breakdown and created an imaginary friend. Jake upsets his wife (Ashley Judd) when he's increasingly lured to the TV cameras and when he breaks his promise to leave the case if it gets dangerous. Astonishingly, she's the one who abjectly apologizes. The nighttime reconciliation scene is such a marital wish-fulfillment -- one spouse saying the other was totally right -- that I actually thought it was a dream sequence.

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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