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Good Suspense -- For the Intelligent Movie-Goer
KCS8225 July 2000
I enjoyed this film very much. It is well acted, and has plenty of star power, with great performances from Roberts and Washington. The story is compelling, and the cinematography lends itself to excellent suspense. However, many moviegoers (including myself) will find elements of the plot confusing and hard to follow. There are a great number of characters, and it is often difficult to tell who is who -- most of the "bad guys" dress alike and have similar hair, so distinguishing them becomes challenging. This may be a minor flaw in either casting or costume, making the characters somewhat undistinguishable. However, it also makes the plot quite intriguing, as the intelligent moviegoer becomes entangled at guessing just exactly who is associated with who, and so on. Still an excellent suspense movie -- if you like other Grisham movies (The Firm, the Rainmaker, etc.) you will like The Pelican Brief. But be warned: watch the film in an attentive state, and be prepared to think a lot. If you are a lazy, sit-back-and-relax type of viewer, this may not be the film for you.
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Hitchcock would have been pleased
hylinski23 March 2006
You gotta love Alan Pakula. His Pelican Brief is true to the source material but manages to complement it with artfulness learned from Hitchcock and the events portrayed in All The President's Men (also directed by Pakula).

The result is a thriller which never has to resort to the hackneyed or the obvious. Even the chase scene in a car park manages to be a little different.

He has casted brilliantly (perhaps Fletcher Coal should have been older?) but his masterstroke is commisioning James Horner to provide the score. At times sparse and at others boldly chromatic it jangles the nerves as Julia and Denzel duck and weave their way through a maze of unease.

A great way to spend two hours.
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Everyone I have told about the brief is dead.
lastliberal14 August 2007
Take any John Grisham novel and have it brought to screen, written and directed by Alan J. Pakula (Sophie's Choice, All the President's Men. To Kill a Mockingbird), and add Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington as the leads, and you have a movie that is worthy of 141 minutes of your life.

I love political films. You know that if you have read my reviews. Political thrillers are especially great. This one is well worth watching for the story, the directing, and, most especially, for the lead actors. I do not think that Washington and Roberts have ever disappointed me - OK, there was that License to Kill in 1984.

I won't synopsize - you can get that anywhere - but, I will say that you will not be disappointed. It's not a popcorn movie, you have to put some effort into watching it, but the rewards are great. And the chemistry between Roberts and Washington is fantastic!
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Star appeal lifts a good political thriller
NewEnglandPat7 February 2006
Another John Grisham novel becomes an entertaining thriller that opens with the murder of two Supreme Court justices. A Tulane law clerk suspects that the killings are too much of a coincidence and suggests that a Louisiana oil magnate and the White House may be involved. Determined to find out the truth, the clerk's research puts her life in danger, which is clear enough when her law professor is killed. Julia Roberts spends most of the film on the run, dodging killers and murder plots. Denzel Washington is a reporter who get pieces of information from an unknown source and eventually Roberts and Washington team up to investigate the assassinations. The film has complicated twists as Roberts and Washington work together to stay out of harm's way as their investigation points its compass at the White House. The supporting cast is great as are all the tech credits and James Horner contributes a nice music score.
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Scary political thriller works due to good script, fine performances...
Neil Doyle10 January 2007
JULIA ROBERTS is a damsel in distress when she writes a brief, theorizing what and who was behind the murder of two Supreme Court justices. DENZEL WASHINGTON is the investigative reporter who sees some merit in her theory and reluctantly decides to offer his help in tracking down the bad guys.

It's based on a terrific John Grisham thriller and given a well crafted script, good performances and taut direction from Alan J. Pakula. I'm not a fan of either Roherts or Washington, so for me to praise this movie shows you how suspenseful and entertaining it is as a thriller.

The overrated Julia Roberts is a huge box-office star who never once appealed to me despite her enormous popularity and Denzel Washington is a competent actor who sometimes does extra fine work--but neither one would win a popularity poll with me.

So, with that personal bias showing, I still give THE PELICAN BRIEF a respectable rating because it does what it sets out to do--it keeps you hooked until the ending after a few unexpected plot twists totally in keeping with this kind of story where the heroine is in peril because she knows too much.

Well worth a view.
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The best of the Grisham movies
Shrykespeare11 August 2004
Forget the plot holes. Forget the implausibility of the story. This is Grisham, the modern-day master of legal and political conspiracy and intrigue.

This movie centers on one thing: the chemistry between the on-screen duo of Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. And they do not disappoint. Both give absolutely stellar performances, Washington as the reporter who desperately wants his story to see the light of day but is not afraid to let his compassion show through, and Roberts as a terrified law student engulfed in a situation where she is way over her head, trying simultaneously to survive and avenge the death of her lover. There is not one scene, not one bit of dialogue, verbal or non-verbal, that doesn't make be believe everything they say, and that is a testament to the acting abilities of Roberts and Washington, two of Hollywood's best.

For pretty much the entire second half of the movie, Denzel and Julia's characters work together to find proof of the conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of two Supreme Court judges, while at the same time dodging unscrupulous lawyers, heavies and an international hitman.

In their final scene together, when Darby is taking the FBI director's private plane out of the country, the bond that has grown between her and Gray is extremely noticeable. They deplane, and Gray shows Darby the headline exposing the conspiracy. Darby smiles, shakes Gray's hand, and proceeds to walk to the car that will take her to her new location.... but no, a handshake is just not enough, not after what they'd been through... so she goes back and gives Gray a huge hug, which he returns. The mutual respect is there for all to see. No words are spoken throughout the entire scene, they are not necessary.

Having read many of Grisham's books and seen all of the movies adapted from those books, I wondered how "The Pelican Brief" would stack up against all the others in the long run. In my opinion, it is still the best of the bunch.

My score: a solid 10.
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Engrossing, exasperating, enjoyably silly...
moonspinner558 July 2006
John Grisham's bestseller becomes paranoia thriller directed capably by Alan J. Pakula. "Eager beaver" Louisiana law student Julia Roberts does some home research trying to connect the backgrounds of two Washington, D.C. Supreme Court Justices who were murdered; her theories regarding the two men--who wanted them dead and why--turns out to be scarily accurate. The brief manages to get into the hands of top Presidential aides, and soon a contract is put out on her life. Shady political business is mixed with detective yarn and a (semi) love story between Roberts and stalwart newspaper journalist Denzel Washington, who is excellent. Smoothly done commercial package, well-paced and entertaining, though exceptionally far-fetched (which parlays into the enjoyment factor). Roberts pouts too much, and her first meeting with Washington (talking in a weepy whisper) is awful, but there is chemistry between the two and they help gloss over the more nonsensical parts of the script (such as a chase through a parking garage--full of cars but no witnesses--and the ridiculous, fatuous way the writers explain Roberts' seemingly unending credit and cash flow--"I have the money my father left me"). The supporting cast is filled with recognizable character actors all playing two-faced sons-of-bitches, with the minor exception of John Lithgow doing a nicely benign turn as the editor at Washington's paper. *** from ****
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Pakula at his best....I love this movie
pik92317 January 2008
This is just a great 'whodunit' legal thriller. Gripping, intelligent, acting is superb, the story is well constructed and builds in this beautiful crescendo. It' a huge cast and everyone is perfectly suited for their role. It moves beautifully, it flows like a movie should flow. I can't find any real flaw worth sharing. Just isn't there. I think it sets up Denzel Washington to continue in his escalating career as a wonderful character actor, a huge movie star, a big talent. Tony Goldwyn, since GHOST has this tendency to play the 'bad guy' but what can I say, he's good in this film too. Robert Culp, I love his impossible character. Julia Roberts is wonderful as the young starry-eyed law student who stumbles upon things bigger than anything she ever imagined. I loved every moment of the film. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good solid film making. It should be used in teaching film - how to construct a story, how to keep the story one step ahead of the audience, making it suspenseful and exciting without having to resort to unnecessary violence or sex to make a movie work. It almost breaks through 'formula' scripts as suggested by the pundits who often don't have their finger on the pulse of what audiences want. It's one of the few films that when ever on television draws me in again and again and again!
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kai ringler4 September 2013
I don't think that you have to be a conspiracy nut like me to enjoy this movie, but it sure helps. Sure the conspiracy was a little far fetched and hard to believe but that is what makes it fun,, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington star as our two main leads,, countless other actors and actresses make this a great movie,, there are so many I can't even think to list them all, but they were great nonetheless. Supreme Court judges are getting offed by someone ,, and our junior law clerk,, played by Miss Roberts has to figure out who done it,,because she is writing a paper on it for class, Mr. Washington plays a local reporter for the newspaper, and eventually she contacts him,, brings him up to speed and the two team up and try to solve the murders of the Supreme Court Judges,, along the way they are almost blown up,, shot at , and numerous attempts on their lives,, as the bad guys who are responsible will stop at nothing to keep this from going public,, excellent crime thriller that really shouldn't be missed.
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A Brief ring of truth
benbrae7611 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I haven't read this particular John Grisham novel on which this film was based, so I can't comment as to the film's faithfulness to it. I can surmise however that from reading other Grisham novels it "feels" like it might be quite close. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong.

The storyline is fairly straightforward. Why were two Supreme Court Justices assassinated? Darby Shaw, a curious law student (Julia Roberts), does a little research and writes a thesis on a possible reason. She shows it to her law professor boyfriend (Sam Shepherd), who in turn shows it to a colleague, also a lawyer (John Heard), who works for the FBI. The professor is blown up in a planted car bomb and his friend is shot dead in a hotel room. And someone wants the student dead also. She goes "on the run", and eventually turns to Gray Grantham, an investigative journalist (Denzel Washington) for help.

This is a superb "conspiracy" movie within the genre of "All the Presidents Men" and "In Defence of the Realm", and although starting relatively slowly, builds up the tension and is never dull. It has an excellent supporting cast featuring Robert Culp as the worried President (what President isn't?), with John Lithgow as Grantham's newspaper editor, British character actor Nicholas Woodeson as an assassin, and Stanley Tucci, who gave such a wonderfully chilling performance as Adolph Eichmann in the British TV production "Conspiracy", is equally pragmatically chilling here as a hit man.

There is a muted chemistry between the two leads which, like the film, (although there is a little action), never quite gets, perhaps purposely, to boiling point. It's all suitably and superbly played in a low key, which helps to maintain a sinister element to the overall development of the plot.

I suspect that "The Pelican Brief" is probably not to everyone's taste, but I personally love it, and given the oft modern corporate disregard for environmental matters, is by no means implausible, and indeed has the ring of truth about it.
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First Great Adaptation Of Grisham's Novel
Desertman8431 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The Pelican Brief is a legal crime thriller based on the novel of the same title by John Grisham. It stars Julia Roberts in the role of young law student Darby Shaw and Denzel Washington as Washington Herald reporter Gray Grantham together with Sam Shepard,Hume Cronyn,Stanley Tucci,John Heard,Cynthia Nixon,Jake Weber and James Sikking.It was directed by Alan J. Pakula.

The Pelican Brief has the 24-year-old law student Darby Shaw embroiled in an affair with Thomas Callahan,her alcoholic professor. She writes up an insightful theory about the recent murder of two Supreme Court justices,one of whom, Abraham Rosenberg, served as Callahan's mentor. When Callahan shares this so-called "Pelican Brief" with buddy Gavin Verheek, an FBI lawyer, the document makes its way to White House flack Fletcher Coal, who believes it could topple the current administration. When Callahan is murdered and the President convinces the FBI to hold off on investigating Darby's theory, the resourceful student must go into hiding, stalked by relentless assassin Khamel. Her only hope of escaping Callahan's fate and proving her theory lies in Washington investigative reporter Gray Grantham,who's already had one confidential source back out of sharing information about the assassinations.

This is the first great adaptation of John Grisham's best-selling novel.The film itself was fantastic as it was suspense-filled from beginning to end.Roberts' and Washington's performance makes the film absorbing and entertaining from beginning to end.It elevates the movie from a typical crime thriller and mystery.In summary,the movie succeeds into putting the great story of the novel into the big screen.
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The Good & Bad Of The Pelican Brief
ccthemovieman-118 March 2006
Some of things I really appreciated from this political thriller was (1) no sappy romance taking away from the suspense and story; (2) very little profanity; (3) a number of interesting scenes that kept your attention for the full 141 minutes; (4) solid acting by the two leads, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts; (5) nice visuals and nice sound.

What I didn't appreciate was the usual Hollywood screen versions of the John Grisham novels, which means a fair amount of Liberal agendas, some subtle, some not so subtle. The message anyone against saving wildlife like the penguins has to be either crooked or a violent thug is preposterous. Early on, we hear a TV broadcaster proclaiming that the killings of two Supreme Court justices might have been by some group that also bombed abortion clinics, ACLU offices, etc. Of course - villainous right wingers hurting good-guy left wingers - what else? Isn't that the way it's always portrayed in the movies??

Too bad that bias political propaganda is in here because most of this film is just a very good suspense film and well done at that. Washington and Roberts are both fun to watch and they are up against so many suspicious-looking characters that it's a paranoid viewer's delight. They keep you guessing who you can trust and who you can't, which is fun, and helps make the time on this movie fly past.
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It's all been seen before
Mr_PCM11 April 2009
The 1993 film with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington still in the formation years of their careers – so this is certainly if nothing else a curiosity piece seeing how these megastar A-listers performed before they truly reached the top. John Grisham novels will generally make for a reasonably solid if unspectacular film, with just sufficient meat for serious actors to get their teeth into, and the Pelican Brief is no exception to this rule.

When two senior judges are murdered, twenty-four year old law student Darby Shaw (Roberts) looks into the case and her suspicions somehow make their way to the FBI – suspicions that prove potentially damaging to the US government. Now she and journalist Gray Grantham (Washington) must try to stay alive long enough to ensure what they have uncovered is told to the world.

Few do distress-turned-determination better than Julia Roberts, but after a slow start followed by a great deal of panicked running and hiding, interest wanes somewhat. Meanwhile Denzel Washington is given so little to do in the first hour to the point he is almost forgotten. Further, it takes so long for us to actually discover what was written in the eponymous brief and for the leads to meet and agree to take action, that the audience's desire to get to the bottom of the 'mystery' is definitely lessened. However, once the two do start working together in the latter half interest does pick up, but not enough to retrieve the film from its ponderous start. Roberts and Washington do the job required of them but seem to treat it as little more than a day at the office – there is very little of the energy we have come to expect from Roberts, or Washington in particular. The secondary roles are filled slightly better – John Lithgow in particular a standout newspaper editor, and watch out for a very young Cynthia Nixon (Miranda from Sex in the City) as Julia Roberts' student friend. However, Stanley Tucci as one of a number of shadowy government figures on the tail of the leads should have stuck to the shadows more. There is little of the slickness, the grit and pace characteristic of later John Grisham adaptations such as Runaway Jury.

Legal thrillers about corrupt government prepared to kill to save their own position have been done so often (and so often much better) that little feels fresh about this Grisham adaptation, to the extent that were it not for the presence of A-listers Roberts and Washington this film would have long been forgotten. As it is, the film does not have enough thrills to save it from the fate of the DVD bargain basement bin. If you wanted to see this, it would probably be cheaper to buy than rent this film – and it would make a nice coaster! OK for a throwaway (literally) Saturday night film, but not memorable in any way. It's all been seen and done before.
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Ho-hum adaptation still better than The Firm
mnpollio19 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
John Grisham's first couple of best-sellers - The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client - were fairly lively page-turners, but none of them received very strong adaptations to the big screen, which is a true shame. The Firm, especially, was a total mess, but The Pelican Brief is only slightly better.

Two Supreme Court Justices have been assassinated. Tulane law student Julia Roberts compiles a brief, which identifies a subtle link between the two which may have been the motivation for the assassinations. She does it as a lark, not realizing that her mentor and sometime boyfriend Sam Shepard would pass it on as a document of interest to contacts in the government. Next thing she knows she is on the run from assassins and attempts on her life, with only the help of idealistic journalist Denzel Washington.

The story definitely requires some suspension of disbelief to get off the ground. In the novel, it was possible because Grisham kept the pace nimble and kept the action moving. In the film, the credibility issue stands out like a sore thumb largely because the pace is so sluggish. The lead character of Darby Shaw is so bland that it quite frankly does not seem possible for her to have conspired this brief nor that anyone would consider her much of a threat. Alan J. Pakula, usually a director of some merit, stages the assassinations on the two Justices totally devoid of tension or style. It is almost like witnessing a commercial for insomnia. Thankfully, he rouses himself a bit more later in the film. There is a nice moment where he contrasts Roberts and Stanley Tucci, as a killer, readying themselves for a meeting.

The film picks up in the latter half, which prevents it from becoming a complete misfire. Yet, even with that, it still fails to catch fire and does not do justice to its source.

Roberts would seem ideal casting, but Darby Shaw is such a cipher that the role fails to give her much to sink her teeth into. Even worse, Pakula has apparently instructed her to restrain her natural on screen ebullience which robs the part of much needed life. It is only towards the end that Roberts really seems to be enjoying herself on screen.

It must have seemed like a great coup to cast Roberts opposite Washington, but alas the two have zero chemistry together. With Roberts restrained close to passivity, Washington goes all star turn and fails to connect at all with the other actors or his leading lady. Oftentimes it seems like he is reciting his lines directly to an audience rather than the people in the same scene, an approach that wears thin quickly.

There are no real surprises in the story and with a leaden first half, the film falls well short of thriller status. Still, it is a much better effort than Sydney Pollack's atrocious adaptation of The Firm and not as fatuous as Joel Schumacher's The Client. Grisham fans would still be well-advised to stick to the book.
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Pakula saves dull plot
HelloTexas1130 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
'The Pelican Brief' is all about mood and atmosphere. There are a lot of hushed phone calls from people who offer tantalizing bits of information and clues before changing their minds and deciding not to say anything else. Then they are usually killed anyway. They might as well have spilled the beans. I had a hard time keeping up with who got killed and what their relationship to the plot was. They all seem to be bland-looking, middle-aged white men with pudgy tummies and receding hairlines. But I could be wrong about that. Anyway, it's a good thing 'The Pelican Brief' is so sombre and sneaky and foreboding. Once the truth is finally exposed and brought out into the open, it's not terribly interesting. A rich oilman wants to drill for oil in Louisiana. In order to do that, he has to kill a couple of Supreme Court justices so their successors will rule in his favor. Oh, and the brown pelicans of Louisiana's coast will be wiped out as a result too. I don't know, I think if I was in this movie, I'd be one of the bad guys. I'd rather drill for the oil than worry about the brown pelicans. And didn't FDR have a court-packing scheme of his own? Of course, he didn't kill anybody. That we know of. Director Alan Pakula certainly makes the most of what he has to work with here by keeping the suspense level high and by keeping our interest, period. I've read several of John Grisham's books, but this isn't one of them; from the evidence presented here, I'd guess it's one of his lesser works. Denzel Washington plays Gray Grantham (does that sound like a superhero's alter ego, or what?), a Washington journalist, in a quietly authoritative manner. It's as if he dares anyone to question his honor. He is the epitome of journalistic integrity, if that's not an oxymoron. Were it not for Washington's considerable acting skills, his character would simply be too good to be true. He comes to the aid of Darby Shaw, played by Julia Roberts. In keeping with the film's quiet and suspicious nature, Roberts portrays Shaw as smart but increasingly paranoid, which is understandable as she is pursued by quite a few of those middle-aged white men who work for the President or the FBI or the CIA or some oil cartel... I was never quite clear on that either. It is an effective performance. I suppose part of the fun of reviewing a film like 'The Pelican Brief' is poking holes, or attempting to, in the plot's logic. For instance, I found it rather difficult to believe that the aforementioned intelligence agencies and assorted bad guys could not capture or kill the Darby Shaw character. She stays in various motels and hotels using her own credit cards; they spy on her, they tap her phone, but by golly, they never can seem to get their hands on her. She always outruns them or ducks into a crowd or jumps in Grantham's car at just the right moment. I know, this is standard issue stuff for a political intrigue/murder mystery, but it really sticks out here as improbable. It's almost as if they stop chasing her after eight p.m. so she can get a good night's sleep. There is a funny moment too (though I don't think it's intentional) during one of those many hushed phone conversations; Shaw calls Grantham to give him some tidbits of information, and when he tries to find out more, she says, "Don't ask me any questions." Grantham gets a confused look on his face and says, quite logically, "Hey, YOU called ME." In that moment, he has become a surrogate for the film audience. So kudos to Pakula, Roberts, and Washington for keeping things fairly exciting and interesting almost to the end; 'The Pelican Brief' does peter out as it reaches its conclusion. Still, it could have been a lot worse.
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lame would-be thriller
Max Salvatore10 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Julia Roberts is Darby Shaw, the kind of brilliant, beautiful and ambitious character that drive potboiler novels like "The Pelican Brief". A law student at Tulane, Shaw rounds off her legal education by sleeping with one of her professors (Sam Shepard) and floating a conspiracy theory linking the mysterious deaths of two Supreme Court justices. When Shaw's theory - blaming powerful land developers for murder - becomes circulated in a legal brief, she finds her life turned upside-down. Friends of hers - all having have read the brief - die and Darby goes on the run. Meanwhile, the president (Robert Culp, playing a morally bankrupt chief, less a right-winger than merely in sway of the rich) tries to squelch an FBI led investigation of one of his friends. Tying the mysterious deaths to a top-level cover-up, a Washington Post reporter (Denzel Washington) teams up with Darby to crack the case. They follow the trail that takes them across the country and eventually brings them to the home of a dead lawyer. This has to be one of the worst movies I've ever seen. borrowing elements of more deservedly remembered Alan Pakula movies like "All the President's Men" and "Parallax View", "Brief" is utterly contrived. It's not as inspired as it is clearly dependent on the cynicism of a jaded public for our leaders and the law. When you look past this flick's slim thrills and its laughable message, nothing left makes sense. The script tosses in a high-priced hit-man (Stanley Tucci) only to dispatch him quickly. Others eliminate their enemies with well-placed car bombs. (We're supposed to believe that guys who are expert in killing people without raising suspicions will rely on big loud car bombs going off on public streets in front of everybody, and of course they can kill just about anybody but a crusading journalist and a law student? We're also supposed to believe that Darby's brief, based on unsubstantiated suppositions, is enough to warrant her death - you'd think that those with power are smart enough to know that most routinely dismiss conspiracy theories for that reason.) Like all so-called thrillers, this one isn't solved - once the story runs out of steam, the script merely dredges up somebody who can explain all. ("Brief" is typical of modern thrillers populated by brilliant characters who nevertheless never actually do any detective work - virtually all relying on some mysterious stranger to walk out of the gloaming with all of the answers.) Over two hours of overwrought tension aren't enough to match the detective-smarts you'll get in a single half-hour of Scooby Doo. The final insult is the leaden seriousness that Pakula bathes the script in. We not only have to believe this flick, we have to believe IN it. What's impossible to believe is how the "Pelican Brief" poses any danger at all. You'd think that a cabal of rich right-wingers could afford to do a better job than a law student could uncover. You'd also think that had Shaw been brilliant enough to solve the mystery, she would have been smart enough to realize the danger it posed her - illustrating the modern thriller's other big failing, its reliance on characters who are gifted and brilliant but never all that smart.
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The only film I have seen where virtually nothing happened
Bilstein30 June 2001
I watched this film on a Saturday evening, at a prime time hour. It was reportedly an edgy sort of thriller, with Julia Roberts and Denzil Washington, who apparently gave excellent performances. I was looking forward to it with some suspense. And that suspense was just about the only suspense I got. I don't remember the length of the film, but it felt like well over 4 days, and it was not time well spent. This has to have been the only film I have seen where virtually nothing happened. Julia Roberts was unusually irritating throughout, Denzil Washington's character was hollow and watching it from beginning to end made me feel like I was watching a year-long golf tournament. I nearly fell asleep several times, and my overall reaction was that the film simply was a failure. Failure to convince, deliver or provide any entertainment or suspense whatsoever.

2/10 - and it can count itself lucky to have got that
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Glossy, ho-hum thriller
Libretio7 February 2005

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Panavision)

Sound format: Dolby Digital

During a bitterly contested election year, a young law student (Julia Roberts) writes an uncannily accurate thesis on the recent murders of two Supreme Court judges and joins forces with a skeptical journalist (Denzel Washington) when she's targeted for elimination by agencies attached to the White House...

It's difficult to believe this ho-hum thriller - based on John Grisham's novel - was directed by Alan J. Pakula, the man responsible for ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976). The near documentary realism of that earlier film has been replaced by Hollywood gloss and contrivance, as two of Tinseltown's brightest stars follow a trail of clues to their inevitable conclusion. Pakula's own script thankfully refrains from indulging a romance between Roberts and Washington, but there isn't much chemistry between them either, as they rush headlong from one scene to the next, seeking answers to a complex mystery. Unfortunately, the build-up of details isn't nearly as exciting as the film presumes, and the punishing 141 minute running time simply adds unnecessary baggage to an already convoluted storyline. Pakula takes advantage of his lavish budget by staging most of the major set-pieces within large crowds of people, but there are few surprises in either the script or its execution, and the happy ending is never in doubt. On the plus side, however, the film is distinguished by a powerhouse supporting cast of reliable talent (Sam Shepard, John Heard, Robert Culp, John Lithgow, Hume Cronyn, James B. Sikking, Stanley Tucci, William Atherton, etc.). Production values are excellent.
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Star-powered escapist fare
Dennis Littrell19 September 2001
I have seen other movies made from John Grisham novels, The Client (1994 ) and The Firm (1993). I would say this is on a par with those movies, and is typical of the mass market "thriller" genre. For me it's like watching TV, or an airline movie: the treatment is predictable, the plot includes a lot of unlikely action morphed out by various CIA, FBI, and other serious types according to the general expectation of the audience on a simplistic level, with some creativity but certainly nothing original. This is a movie for a tired CEO to fall asleep to. Yet it stars Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington with an interesting cast that includes the very talented Sam Shepherd. Alan J. Pakula, who directed and penned the script from Grisham's novel, has a number of important movies to his directorial credit including All the President's Men (1976) and Sophie's Choice (1982), and some as a producer, most notably the celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). So what happened here?

Just the usual gravitation toward the mean. If you make a movie aimed at a mass audience, what's the point of doing anything they wouldn't appreciate anyway? Roberts and Washington are here for their star power, not because of their considerable acting talent. Yet, perhaps inspired by one another, they both give strong performances that carry the movie and make this definitely worth watching.

Julia Roberts plays a Tulane law student who gets an idea about who assassinated two Supreme Court justices and why, and she writes a brief about it, the "Pelican Brief." We see her deep in the stacks at the library doing research, sporting several hair-dos at a little table under various lighting changes, so that we know its daytime and then night, etc., a clear device about as original as the pages flying off a calender. Tulane law professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepherd) is her mentor and bed mate. She's twenty-four and he's about forty, but a girl can learn a lot from such a man and he's warm and loving. Nonetheless we are scratching our head about this match up, especially when he begins drinking heavily (one of the justices was his mentor), and we know now for sure he's not in love. Well, the guy that gets Julia Roberts sure as heck can't be wishy washy about his love for her, we know that.

We are also scratching our head because Denzel Washington, the ace of spades of leading men, an actor of power and accomplishment, is usually found in more serious venues, a guy who's played Steve Biko, apartheid victim and martyr in Cry Freedom (1987) and Malcolm X in Malcolm X (1992). So what's he doing in this mid-brow flick? He plays a beltway reporter, right out of the annals of the Bernstein and Woodward legend, but there is little real acting for him to do. So why is he here? It's to play opposite Julia Roberts of course!

So what we have here is a very expensive "entertainment" starring two real actors. (I wonder how much money it made considering what they had to pay Grisham, Roberts and Washington.) Surely the subplot has to be romantic. How IS Hollywood going to play the racially mixed duo? Inquiring minds want to know. (Hint: with great subtlety.)

Julia is running, since the bad guys are after her. Notice that the plot conveniently gets rid of the "too old for her" guy. Try not to notice the other contrivances, the mysterious guy in the background who appears at exactly the last moment, for example. Just as one of the bad guys is about to blow our Julia away, he somehow blows the hit man away--by the way, getting blood on our girl. (It's enough to mention one plot contrivance per review, unless it's unusually bad, but there are others.) Well, Julia's getting the picture and it's pretty scary. She's on the phone as she's running from hotel to hotel, spending cash instead of using traceable credit cards. She can't trust anybody. Even the president of the United States is suspect, played incidentally with a kind of glee by Robert Culp as though impersonating Ronnie Reagan halfway into his dementia. Strange thing, Julia actually thinks you are supposed to really ACT in a thriller! Denzel knows better, managing a kind of controlled emotion throughout, saying as little as possible, using his eyes and making a lot out of silence, which is something an accomplished actor does when the script doesn't give him sparkling lines. Julia really does look scared, her face rubbery with a mean crease down the middle of her forehead. Watching just her, one could mistake this for an artsy-smartsy "serious" flick. Not to worry. There are some nice explosions and plenty of chases and all sorts of shadowy red herrings lurking about.

Bottom line: If this is your genre, and you've just got to get away from that pile of papers you brought home to work on, go for it. This is standard issue escapist fare, true, but the stars really do shine.

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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Merely an O.K. piece of work
caa82110 February 2007
With the exception of "Pretty Woman" and "Glory," respectively, I've never found either Julia Roberts' or Denzil Washington's work to be among my favorites.

Their performances in this movie did nothing, for me, to change this opinion. Hers was just overall annoying, and his so low-key and quiet I wish someone (either on-screen or off-) had had a cattle prod handy to rouse him.

I like Grisham's work overall, and have liked some of the screen presentations as well as, or even better, than the book. This one definitely wasn't one of them. For me, a major problem was not caring an iota for ANY of the characters (lead or minor, good-guy of bad- in the supporting cast).

But seeing it again at this time in our history, viewing Robert Culp's thoroughly-inept,, unintelligent, vacuous President {(ring any bells????), and his devious aide, Tony Goldwyn, (ring the bell again?)} - and all of the completely smarmy government operatives abounding - well, it seems that our current reality is imitating art.

The present goings-on, and the past several years with the Iraq fiasco, may have a different scenario than this flick, but the current cast of real characters in D. C. makes those in this film seem less fictitious than was so when it was released, or when Grisham wrote the story.
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First-rate legal thriller based on John Grisham's #1 bestseller
Catherine_Grace_Zeh25 November 2005
THE PELICAN BRIEF, in my opinion, is a first-rate legal thriller based on John Grisham's #1 bestseller. When Darby (Julia Roberts) and Gray (Denzel Washington) were being pursued, I got really scared and tense. This was because I didn't want to see them get hurt. It was fun watching them outsmart the bad guys, though. To sum this up, the performances were top grade, the direction was flawless, and the casting was perfect. Now, in conclusion, if you are a fan of Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington, or you enjoyed John Grisham's title novel, I highly recommend this movie. You're in for a good time and lots of thrills, so see this movie today. I guarantee you that you'll have a good time, so go to the video store, rent it or buy it, kick back with a friend, lock the doors and windows, and watch it.
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Another classy Pakula thriller
Framescourer1 August 2005
Another finely wrought, if complicated thriller from the man that brought us Presumed Innocent. The Grisham plot is sprawling but coherent and Pakula manages to include what must be most of it; but even if we find ourselves bewildered by the jigsaw, the tension of its coming together runs throughout the film.

Excellent performances from Washington and Roberts are buttressed on either side by a large pool of committed Hollywood support (although I can't quite get scared of Stanley Tucci's assassin). There's also a vision to the shooting of the film that includes a noble America as a ubiquitous background to the film; the protagonists are fighting in and for a benign but worthy moral backdrop that's rendered visually as well as in the plot and its script. Intelligent but mainstream – just don't' go with anyone who'll ask you what's going on every five minutes. 7/10
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Resist the urge to watch this movie.
livinatthemovies20 February 2003
Warning: Spoilers
The problem with cable tv is that it gives you a 2nd chance to view movies you were wise enough to avoid in the 1st place. Such is the case with this star-studded yet plodding and, ultimately, dull movie.


Usually I'm a fan of movies based on Grisham's novels. They always feature a underdog vs. some great conspiracy with the underdog coming out on top. Nothing that will change your life, but good entertainment. So where did this go wrong? Well for one thing its too long by about 15 minutes, there are far too many scenes that are intended to build suspence but succeed only in building an itch to channel surf and see if something good is on. One example: The scene where John Heard's character is killed is 6-8 minutes of him brushing his teeth, looking at himself in the mirror, grabbing his fat belly etc, etc. By the end of all this I was begging 'please please have him killed I can't take anymore of this.' Then there's the 'Pelican Brief' itself...Its alluded to constantly throughout the film, to find out about it was probably the reason I stuck with this turkey so long. When, at last, its described its surprisingly straight forward, no clever insight or plot twist. Something, in fact, that 100s of people might have thought of.

Besides all that this movie has a cheesy, made-for-tv, feel to it. Particularly the group scenes (the protest in the beginning, the shooting at the park, etc.) which are obviously staged.

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What a disappointment, after the book!
janicegmartin14 December 2002
When The Pelican Brief was published as a book, my husband and I read it aloud to each other on a long road trip. We could hardly wait to turn the next page. We found Darby fascinating and smart and courageous. When the movie came out we were eager to go. What a disappointment, after the book! Julia Roberts was so annoying with her low-talking monotone and feel-sorry-for-myself attitude, I wanted to shake her. She was not the Darby in the book. I think the rest of the movie must have been okay, but Julia Roberts was so obnoxious I couldn't enjoy it. Sorry, big Julia Roberts fans. . .
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Tension it has - but not much else.
Flash-817 July 1999
John Grisham wrote a fine tale where politics sleeps with big business, and, as a result, the world's environment is set to suffer miserably. Unfortunately the intricate plot enveloping this tale was evidently too large for director Alan Pakula to handle. Pakula did manage to make this film suspenseful, but the lack of continuity within the plot brought the mounting tension to peaks of unintentional humor.

At one point the reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) is running from the very man he's desperately searching for. Then that evening (or so it seems) Gray is solemnly talking to the man's widow and we learn that her husband has been dead for two weeks. Go figure.

Another time Gray is standing shirtless at night in front of a secret, secluded cabin with a rifle in his hands. From the eerie noises moving through the dense surrounding forest its seems Gray is about to get shot right in his magnificently bulging chest. But no. It is only the heroine, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), slipping and sliding through the muck trying to get to his hideout. What a let down. I do remember laughing at that point. And by the way. How was she able to find him, and the super clever bad guys couldn't?

Speaking of clever bad guys. After seeing the same two bad guys take turns attempting to terminate Gray and Darby, suddenly there's a girl bad guy chasing our breathless duo. Where did she come from? In a very tense moment she has the two cornered and spots their reflection in the shiny chrome of a nearby car. Since they are crouched motionless behind a wall looking toward the chrome on the car, and the female assassin has to move toward them, I would have thought they would spot her reflection far sooner than she theirs. How do they get out of this one? Oh yes. A Doberman, conveniently sitting with the window half rolled down in the car next to the assassiness, decides to get excited just at the right moment. I sort of felt like Max in Get Smart. "The old Doberman in the adjacent car trick" I can hear him say.

If you like tension, and more than the occasional hackneyed getaway ploy, you'll love this movie. Otherwise, stick to the novel.
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