Anti-establishment lawyer and writer John Grisham
's riveting lawyer novels are absolute pageturners, penetrating the intimidating facade of the legal system, and humanizing it with his behind-the-scenes knowledge. Alan Pakula's filmic adaptation painstakingly connects the plot points in Grisham's big-conspiracy novel, "The Pelican Brief, '' but his distillation scrapes off Grisham's real stuff, the fascinating and contradictory human behavior.
With Julia Roberts
' return and Grisham's built-in fans, Warner Bros. will win a huge first weekend b.o. settlement, but word-of-mouth will only be lukewarm. File big winning numbers for this well-produced film, but nolo contendere as a blockbuster.
Even conspiracy nerds might be taken aback by the breadth and scope of "The Pelican Brief's'' plot: Two Supreme Court justices are assassinated simultaneously and, remarkably, there seems to be no connection. The two are ideological opposites, with one (Hume Cronyn
) even at death's door. Especially troubled is Callahan, a Tulane law professor (Sam Shepard
) who regarded the elderly justice as a mentor and father. He returns to boozing, despite the protests of his favorite student and lover, Darcy (Roberts).
While the nation puzzles and mourns (except at the White House where replacing two justices is seen as a legacy-making opportunity), Darcy hits the library and with her laptop synthesizes a brief, herein introduced as "The Pelican Brief, '' which theorizes who is behind the assassinations. It's a brilliant, unorthodox theory that might more plausibly require the efforts of 36 Cray computers. Remarkably, her brief soon makes its way to the FBI and eventually to the Oval Office.
The reaction comes back in the form of a bang: Callahan is blown up in the French Quarter, a bomb clearly intended for Darcy.
Suddenly, it's undercover girl vs. the old-boy power establishment, certainly a fun possibility, but in Pakula's logistical-retentive, stiff screenplay, "Pelican Brief'' plummets to tedium: Darcy scampers from phone booth to hotel room to public meeting place, collecting anonymous tips from numerous gray-suited types about new and more distant characters. Ad infinitum: the scenario unravels in expositional drudgery.
It's as if the screenplay were written as a blue-backed legal document, with all of Grisham's juicy character quirks and broadsides against the legal establishment ruled irrelevant. Fortunately, Pakula's visualization is more succinct and involving: As in "All the President's Men, '' his compositions, often filmed from a high vantage, clue us to hidden connections in the Byzantine halls of power. Praise to cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt for the telling framings.
Roberts is credible as the country-saving law student. Still, having her scamper about in nondescript clothes, dowdy hairdos and low-profile hats, despite its narrative correctness, may strike her fans as a miscarriage of star power. Denzel Washington
, equal parts charm and tenacity, fares better as a Woodstein-type reporter, but Shepard is most wronged by Pakula's scripting. In the novel, his law-professor character was a complex man whose love of the law was clouded by his hatred of the system; in this all-too-brief-on-characters "Brief, '' he's merely a cradle-robbing drunk.
THE PELICAN BRIEF
An Alan J. Pakula Film
Producers Alan J. Pakula, Pieter Jan Brugge
Screenwriter/director Alan J. Pakula
Based on the book by John Grisham
Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer Philip Rosenberg
Editors Tom Rolf
, Trudy Ship
Costume designer Albert Wolsky
Music James Horner
Darby Shaw Julia Roberts
Gray Grantham Denzel Washington
Thomas Callahan Sam Shepard
Gavin Verheek John Heard
Fletcher Coal Tony Goldwyn
Denton Voyles James B. Sikking
Bob Gminski William Atherton
The President Robert Culp
Khamel Stanley Tucci
Justice Abraham Rosenberg Hume Cronyn
Smith Keen John Lithgow
Running time - 141 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
(c) The Hollywood Reporter