I kept seeing this available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, but the title threw me off. That’s because there is another film with the same name from 61 years ago. But I needed another movie review for 16 August, so I clicked on this and got a surprise. It’s based on a John Grisham novel of the same name. From 20 years ago, this is The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon as newly-minted Memphis lawyer Rudy Baylor. I purchased a copy of the book, but I have not had time to read it. I will, however, make note of variances between the book and the film. This is out of American Zoetrope and Constellation Films and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Details are from Wikipedia.
Grisham wrote a slew of lawyer novels, and the ones I have covered share a common thread:
- A disdain for the American legal system
- A lawyer dangling by a thread and working to right a wrong.
Rudy Baylor tells the story. Fresh out of law school he can’t find a job. He is studying to pass the bar exam, and the only work he can get is with a sleaze bag firm in Memphis. He’s given a list of clients to rein in and an assistant, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), who has a law degree, but who has failed the bar exam six times.
One of Rudy’s clients is the Black family. Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth) is dying of leukemia, which condition could be resolved, except that requires a bone marrow transplant, which the Black family cannot afford, except they have health insurance from a company calling itself Great Benefit. Only Great Benefit has declined the family’s claim eight times, the final time in the manner of an abusive (“dumb dumb dumb”) rejection letter. Here we see Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) comforting her son, who is bleeding from the nose.
To pick up clients and earn his keep at the law firm, Rudy hangs out at a local hospital, where he witnesses a severely injured woman, Kelly Riker (Claire Danes) being abused by her husband Cliff (Andrew Shue), who put her there previously with the aid of an aluminum softball bat. This image shows right before the husband blows up, throwing stuff in his wife’s face, and storming out of the hospital cafeteria, knocking over furniture. Rudy offers to help her.
Oops! Rudy’s employer dissolves, as its owner, J. Lyman “Bruiser” Stone (Mickey Rourke) gets charged with racketeering and absconds. Before the balloon goes up Rudy and Deck make off with critical case files and start their own law firm. They take the Black case to court. However, Rudy has only just passed the bar exam, and he is not yet really a lawyer. Great Benefit’s high-price lawyer, Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight) agrees to allow Rudy to continue with the case if the judge will swear him in on the spot.
The judge is notoriously sympathetic with outfits such as Great Benefit to the detriment of people who bring suit against them, and he urges a settlement on Rudy, apparently in collaboration with Drummond. Rudy takes the offer to Dot, but she tells Rudy it’s too late for money. She wants justice. She wants Great Benefit nailed to the wall.
Dawn breaks, and the judge has died. The case gets a new judge, a former civil rights lawyer. Nothing could be worse for Great Benefit. Rudy tells the judge the Black family has declined the offer and wants to proceed with the case. That brings Rudy to a deposition at a Great Benefit’s conference room in Ohio. With nothing working for him but a shoe shine, Rudy faces a bank of lawyers billing at $1000 an hour and their client, who stonewalls the deposition. Witness have disappeared. Gone. Left the company, Whereabouts unknown. Tough luck, kid.
Where have we seen this before—a disclosure proceeding involving a disappearing employee? How about a movie by that name, Disclosure, which came out three years before?
In the meantime, Deck has figured out their law office has been bugged. It’s not a government bug, not high-end. They figure Drummond’s firm is behind the caper. They test their theory. They track down one of the jurors scheduled to hear the case. They do not contact the juror, but they have their process server Butch (Adrian Roberts) to fake a phone call, posing as a juror, to Rudy at the office. Sure enough, in court Drummond charges that Rudy has been in contact with the juror.
Meanwhile, Rudy has multiple irons in the fire. He convinces Kelly to file for divorce, and he sequesters her in the home of an elderly client. When Rudy and Kelly go by her house to get some clothing Cliff breaks down the door with his trusty aluminum softball bat and commences to wage war on the two. After suffering some damage, the two gain the advantage over Cliff, and Kelly advises Rudy to depart and forget he was ever there. As Rudy closes the door behind him he hears multiple blows being landed on Cliff. It’s the end of Cliff, and police haul Kelly in. Rudy represents her as her lawyer.
Good news. the district attorney declares Cliff’s fatal encounter was an act of self-defense, and Kelly is not charged. Deck employs some dodgy methods and locates one of the missing witnesses from Great Benefit. Jackie Lemanczyk (Virginia Madsen), it turns out, did not resign voluntarily. She was paid $10,000 to quit and to say nothing. She was in charge of routinely denying claims. The company’s business model was to sell cheap policies door-to-door, collect premiums weekly, and deny claims.
There is some back and forth in the courtroom, which makes for good viewing, and the jury awards the Black family (Danny Ray has since died) $50 million. But they don’t collect, and also Drummond’s law firm does not get paid. Great Benefit’s CEO is arrested attempting to leave the country after looting the company. Rudy informs Dot there will be no money, but Dot is agreeable. She has obtained her vengeance.
Rudy hooks up with Kelly. They are likely to be making babies soon. But he decides he does not want to be a lawyer. Recall Grisham’s unfondness for the legal system.
Grisham, or else whoever crafted the movie script, takes a few things for granted. For example, Jackie, the claims handler, cites a section U of the company handbook. That section instructs that all claims should be denied. She presents her own copy of the handbook, a large three-ring binder, which she took with her when she left the company.
However, Drummond presents the “current” copy of the handbook. There is no section U. He charges that Rudy’s copy is not admissible in court, because Jackie stole it from her employer. Initially Rudy is stumped by this, but Deck, who previously failed six time to pass the bar examination, pulls up a precedent showing that stolen evidence is admissible, so long as it was not the ones prosecuting the case who stole it.
On the face of it, this should have been well-understood, even by a fuzzy-faced kid out of law school. Suppose a gang robs a bank, and then one of the gang steals some of the bank money and turns it over to the district attorney. Is the district attorney not allowed to use the twice stolen money as evidence? We would not think he should. Stolen, fell out the back of a van, blown out a window by a capricious wind, when it lands in your lap you can use it.
Jackie cites section U. The defense presents the current handbook with no section U. Of course, section U has to be the last section in the book, else Great Benefit would need to explain why there is a section V but no section U. And what difference should it make, anyhow? Get one of the witnesses from Great Benefit on the stand and ask about section U. That person denies its existence under penalty of perjury. Who’s willing to go to jail for Great Benefit?
As it turns out, I have since acquired a Kindle edition of the novel, and I checked on this particular item. Grisham never put any concern about stolen paperwork in the book. That part seems to have been crafted by screen writer Francis Ford Coppola. It chews up a few minutes of celluloid, ushers in some extra drama, and confuses legal minds watching it.
Also, there is the matter of the bugging of Rudy’s office. Rudy and Deck have enough evidence to demonstrate that the defendant’s law firm bugged their office. Drummond exhibited knowledge that could only have been obtained from eaves dropping the faked call. Rudy has the ammunition to turn the high-price law firm into a vacant lot.
While writing this I spoke with somebody who previously worked for Blue Cross. The information I obtained is that their practice is much like that of the fictional Great Benefit. Deny claims as a matter of course. Lest the viewer think this is an extraordinary circumstance, a short Internet search reveals it to be common. Insurance companies attempt to boost their profit by denying claims, with little consideration for the claims’ merits:
In order to understand the effect of an insurer incentive plan on claims personnel, it is helpful to review the details of an actual program. For instance, Farmers Insurance Group, Inc. has instituted a number of employee incentive programs. One program is called “Quest for Gold.” It was implemented by Farmers in 1998. Quest for Gold is a contest in which Farmers pays cash prizes and bonuses to the personnel of the Branch Claims Offices that perform best in achieving various predetermined goals. In 1999, the North Dakota/South Dakota (Bismarck) Branch Claims Office excelled in the Quest for Gold contest. The Office achieved a silver medal entitling each of the Bismarck Branch Claims Office personnel to a share of the cash prizes.
That posting goes on to lay out the framework. Since an employee cannot increase profits by boosting policy premiums, the employee is left with the option of denying claims, whether specifically instructed to do so or not.
Another peculiar aspect of the Great Benefit case is the nature of the policy. The Black family is shown to be low-income and a ripe market for weekly premium payments. From the book:
I examine the Blacks’ policy with Great Benefit, and take pages of notes. It reads like Sanskrit. I organize the letters and claim forms and medical reports. Sara has disappeared for the moment, and I’ve become lost in a disputed insurance claim that stinks more and more.
The policy was purchased for eighteen dollars a week from the Great Benefit Life Insurance Company of Cleveland, Ohio. I study the debit book, a little journal used to record the weekly payments. It appears as though the agent, one Bobby Ott, actually visited the Blacks every week.
Grisham, John. The Rainmaker (p. 34). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It is not emphasized in the movie, but the insurance company incurs considerable cost servicing these policies. An agent must physically visit the Black family each week and collect the premium payment. This is money subtracted from the company’s profit on the policy, and this must be made back by charging a higher rate. What it would mean, even if Great Benefit paid off, is that the Black’s would be getting less coverage for premiums paid. Great Benefit boosted their profit even more by not paying valid claims.
In his summation to the jury, Drummond demonstrates a prevalent bit of insurance company propaganda. He rages that if the jury is not willing to push back against outrageous claims against insurance companies, then they will be to blame when the premiums of honest people become priced out of reach.
A brief scan of the book reveals the movie plot tracks it closely. After Cliff is knocked down in the fight, Kelly tells Rudy to hand over the bat and leave. Rudy waits nearby in his car and watches the police arrive to investigate a murder scene. Kelly is not indicted. In the end Rudy and Kelly leave to make a new life with each other, Rudy taking extraordinary steps to never have further contact with the legal system. There will be a review of the book later this year.
Clair Danes has more recently appeared as hyperbolic counter-terrorism agent Carrie Mathison in the Showtime thriller series Homeland. I previously reviewed The Martian, with Matt Damon in the title role. John Voight’s first memorable appearance was as male prostitute Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. He went on to another stellar performance in Deliverance. With age his glamor appeal faded, as evidenced by Runaway Train. My favorite Danny DeVito vehicle was Romancing the Stone. He was also outstanding in Ruthless People.