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Review: Only slight objections to 'Civil Action'

Web posted on:
Friday, January 08, 1999 2:46:33 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "A Civil Action" is the latest installment in one of the more annoying 1990s movie trends, the heroic lawyer story. I suspect that I don't like movies about lawyers simply because I don't like lawyers in general. I do like my lawyer. But I don't see why one good apple should reflect positively on the whole bunch. There's probably a wonderful, caring high school gym teacher out there somewhere, too, but the only ones I've ever dealt with were of the "you-boys-run-until-you-puke" variety.

At least nobody expects me to sit through endless films about heroic high school gym teachers. (Unless, of course, Robin Williams is cooking one up right now.)

Theatrical preview for "A Civil Action"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

It was quite a different story before the advent of Grisham-mania, but nowadays these things come in two varieties:

1. A young lawyer suddenly realizes that other lawyers are evil. He takes on a case that's sure to be crushed by the big guys. No one will talk on the record, apparently because somebody "got to them." The mother/father/sister/brother/lover of the victim cries on the stand, then an evil lawyer strongly implies that they're of low moral fiber. The young lawyer's life could now be in danger. He brings in a "surprise witness." The jury would like to award more money than the court has suggested. Freeze frame. Eric Clapton song. Old guy walking too slow in front of you as you leave the theater.

2. There is no other variety.

Until now, that is. Screenwriter-director Steve Zaillian's "A Civil Action" is a pretty solid movie, one that didn't completely enthrall me, but didn't leave me snoozing, either. The script is based on a true story, and, like most true stories, it isn't packed with the poppy crescendos that a lot of people will undoubtedly be looking for from this kind of film.

Environmental baddies

The big case has to do with a group of people in a small town who are trying to sue a couple of major corporations for allegedly poisoning their drinking water and thus killing eight of their children.

John Travolta delivers a surprisingly credible performance as Jan Schlichtmann, a smarmy money-grubber of a lawyer who, in an opening voiceover, clues us in to the actual reasons why he and his partners do what they do. In a nutshell, they want to get rich(er). He explains that certain types of victims are likely to receive more money in settlements than other victims (dead children bring in the least), but relates the information to us as if he's reciting baseball stats. In other words, he's well-dressed scum.

When one of his partners brings in the poisoned-water case, Jan wants nothing to do with it. At first, he doubts that there's actually a super-rich corporation involved that can be sued for damages. However, after visiting the woman bringing the suit (Kathleen Quinlan, who's very good and hardly gets a role to play), he discovers that W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods might be responsible. This makes it worth his trouble, so he accepts.

That makes perfect sense, but Travolta's speedy flip-flop to self-appointed sainthood, at which point he wipes out every penny his firm has in the bank while pursuing the case, isn't given a slow enough evolution to be believable. The other members of the firm (solidly played by Tony Shalhoub, Zeljko Ivanek, and William H. Macy), get into major financial trouble as Jan grows more obsessed. No one is working on any other lawsuits, so they're not bringing in any money. If they don't win this case, they all go down in flames.

Duvall a real treat

Schlichtmann may have gone through this conversion in real life, but I just didn't buy it the way Zaillian presents it. That forced me to focus on the performances, for the most part.

As I've already said, pretty much everybody gets the job done admirably, but the real treat is Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher, the sly, eccentric lawyer who represented Beatrice in the case. It's a showboat-y role as written, the kind of thing that would lead Jack Nicholson to wiggle his eyebrows and leer at everyone like an insane person. Duvall, much to his credit, takes it in exactly the opposite direction.

His Facher delivers every line of dialogue, no matter how pointless, as if it's a whispered piece of sage advice. He's like a sleepy, less intimidating Wilford Brimley. Duvall, who's pretty sly himself, sparingly employs a disbelieving little chuckle that shades the character in surprising ways.

Sometimes he's a little too ditsy (like when he stares vaguely at a strawberry instead of paying attention to what's being said during an extremely important meeting) but we know that he's really two steps ahead of everyone at all times. It's kind of silly, but funny, too, and it's certainly fun to watch. Duvall is easily one of the two or three most enjoyable actors working in the movies today. If you're a fan, you'll want to savor this one. If you're not, you could do much worse.

"A Civil Action" contains some bad language, and deals with heavy subject matter. There's one awful (though delicately handled) scene in which a child dies in the car on the way to the hospital. Regardless, it's still pretty rough. Rated PG-13.

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