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Just Killing Time

John Grisham's legal thrillers are the Big Macs of American publishing--more filler than meat and devoured in alarming numbers by consumers who are not interested in real nourishment. Then the books are dutifully recycled as Hollywood movies--because waste never really goes to waste in pop culture's digestive tract. The former Mississippi lawyer slapped his first word-patty, A Time to Kill, onto the griddle in 1984. It was a formulaic mishmash of rape, revenge and racial conflict set in a steamy Southern town, and it didn't go over with readers until subsequent bestsellers made Grisham a household name. For more than a decade, though, he solemnly proclaimed he would never allow his cherished first work to be made into a movie. Too personal, or something like that.

Too bad he didn't keep his promise. Too bad he couldn't resist the $6 million he was paid for the rights.

In the endless parade of Grisham movies, the lamest is likely The Pelican Brief, starring Julia Roberts as a pretty law student who figures out the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices, and the most interesting is probably The Client, with Susan Sarandon as an inexperienced, starving lawyer who gets a baptism of fire from the Mafia and a ruthless, politically ambitious prosecutor played by Tommy Lee Jones.

A Time to Kill, which rivals Pelican for dreary shallowness, stars Matthew McConaughey as an inexperienced, starving lawyer who gets a baptism of fire from the Ku Klux Klan and a ruthless, politically ambitious prosecutor played by Kevin Spacey, and Sandra Bullock as a pretty law student who figures out the strategy to save a black revenge killer from Old South "justice."

Slightly different Lego pieces--same old Grisham Construction Company. No use blaming anyone else, either: The notoriously finicky author was one of the picture's producers (the one with all the clout), reportedly made the lion's share of "artistic decisions" and selected the young Texan McConaughey for the starring role after personally rejecting half a dozen Hollywood stars with more famous names and more impressive resumes. It's nice to see a writer with a little muscle in Hollywood--except when it's a writer like Grisham.

To give credit where it's due, McConaughey (the aging slacker in Dazed and Confused, the sheriff-father in Lone Star) is a magnetic, effective choice to play Jake Brigance, the green lawyer who takes the case that will eventually divide a town because he wants the publicity, then sticks with it because it arouses righteous passion in him. Other major cast members do nice work, too--particularly Pulp Fiction star Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey, the infuriated black father who kills the two rednecks who've raped his ten-year-old daughter; Spacey as the slick, relentless D.A. with powerful connections; and wry Oliver Platt as a shady divorce lawyer who trades in his cynicism for high purpose by assisting Jake with the Hailey murder trial.

But Grisham levels most of what he touches, and the big chunks of cut-rate Southern Gothic served up here remind us that Mississippi produced only one William Faulkner. The caricatures stuffed into A Time to Kill (book and movie) include a boozy old mentor (Donald Sutherland) who's been disbarred years earlier but still sits around in a rumpled ice-cream suit issuing grandiose proclamations like "Save the world--one case at a time"; a hanging judge named Noose (who else but Patrick McGoohan?); and, in the unfortunate Bullock's case, a liberal rich girl from Boston named Roark who wants to apply her wits to saving the American South while Jake saves the world.

Whenever the good, strong acting of McConaughey, Spacey or Jackson promises to enliven the legal or social drama here, Grisham and his hand-picked director, Joel (Batman Forever) Schumacher, usually manage to trivialize it again. This picture is jam-packed with town-square battles between white supremacists and black citizens that have no apparent effect on the proceedings inside the courtroom; a couple of houses are firebombed; and a Grand Wizard wearing a red sheet and hood is incinerated within a few yards of the courthouse. But those catastrophes roll right off the movie's back, too. Here the issues of civil rights, racially stacked juries and fair trials--listening, O.J.?--are given no more weight than the question of whether our noble hero, a happily married man with a little daughter of his own, will slam enough shots of tequila one weary night so that he finally beds the smart, beautiful visitor from Yankeeland.

That's the way it usually is with a Grisham movie--the cheap-ass soap-opera elements are as prominent as the weightier things, because the tacky stuff is what sold all those books in the first place. The whole enterprise is cheapened. Between Grisham's careless, paint-by-numbers plotting (adapted for the screen by one Akiva Goldsman) and his cookie-cutter caricatures, that's what happens in A Time to Kill. By the time we get the verdict (which never really was in doubt), it's hard to care about it--even though this verdict, and the lawyerly summations that precede it, are meant to address some of the most sensitive and important issues in American life. The miscarriage here lies in a failure of justice for the audience. Oh, well. Let 'em eat Big Macs.

A Time to Kill.
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, from a novel by John Grisham. Directed by Joel Schumacher. With Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock and Kevin Spacey.

 
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