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The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Another Grisham thriller hits the screen, with middling results

The Client is such a dispiriting film that I find it hard to summon up the energy to write about it. My colleague on the restaurant beat doesn't have to sweat out 750 words on the opening of a new Burger King, but here I am, visiting the newest addition to the John Grisham chain, trying to think of something to say.

It's not that I hated the movie or found it ugly or degrading. John Grisham writes and sounds as if he's a pretty nice guy. In his latest book, The Chamber, he risks alienating his massive audience by criticizing the death penalty. And in this movie, he has his young hero, 11-year-old Mark Sway (newcomer Brad Renfro), buck pop culture's trend to vigilante justice by not pulling the trigger when he's got the chance. If he does, he'll be "just like them," according to the mantra of his lawyer, Reggy Love (Susan Sarandon). (I'm assuming that the movie follows the novel in this plot development. If left to their own devices, moviemakers will always play it safe and blow the scum away.)

But all the characters here are so thin, so unimagined, that I didnÕt much care if the boy fired or not. Grisham may be a humanistic fellow, but his imagination is programmed with data, rather than alive with image and character. That is to say, he doesn't really have an imagination. Director Joel Schumacher, who did fine, challenging work with Falling Down, doesn't show much here either.

Let's look at the evidence: as the story opens, Mark and his little brother are out in the woods behind the trailer park where they live. Yes, they're trailer trash. Mark has even copped a couple of his mother's cigarettes to practice smoking, because his kind of white boy smokes heavily by age 12, so he's got to learn fast.

In the woods, they bump into a Mafia lawyer who's intent on suicide, but who wants to first unburden his soul to someone. Mark is the only available confessor, so before killing himself, the lawyer tells the boy "where the bodies are buried." Cursed with this dark knowledge from the world of adults, Mark, obviously, will soon be a boy on the run.

This isn't a bad setup. Mark is receiving a secret initiation here, and he could well be on the first leg of a mythic journey. Thrillers need a mythos in order to actually thrill. Last summer's The Fugitive had all the requisite, straight-out-of-today's-headlines business, but it also had a heightened sense of itself -- a sense of what is really important in a story -- that gave it a folk tale's magic. (Incidentally, I wish the blurbists would quit referring to every Tommy Lee Jones movie as his best since that fine film. His Ty Cobb movie will no doubt be "the best baseball movie since The Fugitive.")

The opening of The Client could have used some of that Fugitive magic, not to mention some humor. But it's played as melodrama, and, as a result, it feels flat and predictable. Since we're supposed to take the scene at face value, rather than as mythology, the notion of a suicidal lawyer spilling his guts to two little peckerwoods is unlikely in the extreme. It's almost as unlikely as Mary-Louise Parker's redneck momma. This normally fine actress gets lost in a bass pond of mannerisms here. Her character has nothing like the heft of a real fiction. There's only a sense that plot requirements demand she be the way she is: smoky and unstable.

Parker doesn't have much screen time. Unfortunately, Brad Renfro does, and he's as unconvincing as his movie mother. He doesn't look, talk, or act like our platonic ideal of a trailer-park kid. That would be fine if the filmmakers were playing against type, but instead it feels like they felt it necessary to appropriate only one trailer-trait -- ungrammatical speech -- and stopped there, satisfied. Mark is supposed to be a lovable delinquent, but he has no real Huck Finn spark.

Susan Sarandon has better luck as Mark's attorney, despite the fact that her character is built for bathos. She took up the law, we're told, after the courts took away her own children. In a scene even more unlikely than the opening confession and suicide, Sarandon's Reggy takes on Mark's defense for a $1 fee. She then devotes her life to his defense, in compensation, I guess, for the loss of her children. Yes, one plus one does equal two, but do we go to the movies to be reminded of that? Whatever happened to the new math? Anyway, through sheer strength of presence, Sarandon manages to build life into her character, rather than simply around it.

Reggy is defending Mark against the advances of cretinous Mafia hitmen, who are so stupid and greasy that they would only make sense in a comedy, and from the attentions of a federal marshal, played by the usually larger-than-life Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who needs to seriously consider the career perils of overexposure and unintentional self-parody.

The plot cranks along as everyone looks for Mark, and for the bodies he's been told about. The film must have compressed the novel, because it features dialogue that strains mightily to convey information that would never be included in ordinary speech. The movie also has extraordinarily clear moments of product promotion: you'd think it was of legal significance that Mark's fingerprints were found on a can of Sprite. And when a buffoonish hitman is asked what he'd like to drink, he exclaims "Dos Equis" with truly laughable emphasis. The rest of his dialogue is equally bad -- worse, even -- but he never again seems so animated.

If you find any "pulse-pounding excitement" here, you're probably over-stimulated, and should cut back on the caffeine.

 
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