Monday, December 17, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Firm

The sins Pollack committed with his previous film Havana, he more than atones for with his adaptation of John Grisham’s massively popular novel The Firm. Oh, sure, the length of the film is still unnecessarily close to the three hour mark, but here, unlike in his previous film, he doesn’t waste opportunities with his large cast of characters (played by great character actors) by making sure that he gives them all more than enough time to showcase their skills in an interesting enough way that I never really ever felt the length of the film. The efficacy in which he unfolds the labyrinthine plot is the sign of an old master in control (again), the way he was with previous paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. It’s easy to see why The Firm was Pollack’s biggest hit (hint #1: Tom Cruise at the acme of his popularity), commercially speaking: it’s just a fun summer thriller filled with great performances. Yes, The Firm has a convoluted plot and a lot of flaws when one begins to critically think about it, but it's also damn entertaining if you just let the move play you and go along for the ride. Pollack handles the silly plot like the old pro he is (with help in the writing department of longtime collaborator David Rayfiel and old-pro-himself Robert Towne trying their hardest to cram the massive plot from the novel into movie length). With the aide of those great performances and a wonderful musical score by Dave Grusin, it all adds up to The Firm being one of my favorite Pollack films. 

All attempts to recap the plot would seem futile (both because I assume you know what The Firm is about and who could keep up enough to summarize it), but I’ll try: Mitch McDeere (Cruise) – a young lawyer about to graduate from Harvard Law School – is approached by the Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert, and Locke. Just the name sounds like “A law firm that launders money for the mob.” And wouldn’t you know it, they do. But we’ll get to that soon enough. McDeere, being courted by a number of impressive firms, is given an offer he can’t refuse by the Memphis firm (they disclose that his was the only offer they sent out this year), and so Mitch and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) move from Boston to Memphis to start their new life.

Almost immediately, Abby begins to see some warning signs regarding the intrusive nature of the firm. She’s put-off at first at the fully furnished house upon their arrival in Memphis, and the new Mercedes parked in the driveway, and the phone company that works exclusively for the firm as they set up their phone (all of these, naturally, end up being bugged by the firm). In a conversation with another attorney’s wife, Abby is taken aback by phrases such as, “the firm encourages women work” and “the firm encourages having children.” Abby’s reply – “just how do they do that exactly?” – is one of my favorite lines of the film. As Abby and Mitch become acclimated to their new life, Mitch is introduced to Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman in a great, slimy performance), his assigned mentor. Mitch soon embarks to the Cayman Islands to help Avery with one of their biggest clients, obvious mobster Sonny Capps, in a scene that is a great showcase of acting for both Cruise and Hackman.

Mitch gladly turns a blind eye to a lot of the weird things Abby notices about the firm. The relationship between Abby and Mitch was embellished for the film because Pollack, as usual, needed more of a defined dichotomy between Abby and Mitch so that they could characterize his favorite metaphor: the relationship between men and women as a way of understanding the world. Abby grew up wealthy and understands the not-so-glamorous side (really the things one must give up for wealth) of being rich. Mitch, on the hand, came from nothing, growing up with a single mom in a trailer park with a brother – whom he doesn’t mention he has when asked point blank by the firm if he has any brothers or sisters – that is now in jail on Manslaughter charges. Mitch so obviously wants to grab the American Dream and is so in awe of all the accoutrements the firm throws his way that doesn’t care about some of the quirks that his new employer may have.

Pollack sets up this dilemma early on in the film. Both with Abby’s wariness towards Avery and other members of the firm, but also through Mitch’s internal struggle between his loyalty to his shady clients (and the boatload of money he and the firm are making off of them) or to do what is ethical because he is, after all (come on, it’s Tom Cruise in the early ‘90s!), an idealist. Early on in his trip to the Caymans with Avery, Mitch stumbles upon a secret room filled with files that belong to recently deceased lawyers. This moment sets off the plot’s primary mystery: Mitch meddling in the affairs of the firm and its seedy dealings in regards to the deaths of these former Bendini, Lambert, and Locke lawyers.     

There’s still so much plot to go: Okay, so Mitch is approached by Agent Wayne Terrance of the FBI (Ed Harris) to help them in bringing the firm down. Through their initial conversations, it’s obvious that FBI tries to get to Bendini, Lambert, and Locke’s young lawyers before they become too ingratiated in the practices of the firm. On top of this, Mitch had a night of infidelity in the Caymans – a moment set up by the firm as insurance for just the occasion that Mitch finds himself in with the FBI. In one of the film’s best scenes, the firm’s security director (Wilford Brimley) threatens Mitch telling him that should he decide to go to the FBI, they’ll send the photos to Abby. This pisses Mitch off even more, acting as the catalyst for Mitch finding a way to both give the FBI what they want (and freeing his brother in the process) and screwing over the firm all while trying to keep himself from doing anything that would disbar him.

Whew. There’s so much more I haven’t even gotten into (I’ll address some of it below), yet a complete plot synopsis is not really necessary here. All we need to know is the gist of Mitch’s plan: he’s pissed at the firm and wants to right the wrongs he’s committed; he concocts a plan that plays the firm, the FBI, and the mob and allows him to walk away with his ethics (and ability to practice law) still intact. Mitch’s plan is half the fun of The Firm. I was never quite sure just how he was keeping everything straight and how he gets to go about doing what he does without being disbarred, but I sure as hell was entertained while I watched it, and major kudos to Pollack for keeping the audience on a straight enough path where the eye rolling occurs after the film instead of while its playing itself out.

Grisham’s book was such a hit (time between the novel being published and the film being in pre-production was only a year) that people were a little upset at some minor changes to the source material. One of the things that Pollack did was expand the character of Abby. He had to do this in order to insert into the film the love story that we know Pollack must have in his films. In expanding the Abby McDeere character, it allows Pollack to create tension between Mitch and Abby by inserting the subplot about Mitch’s unfaithfulness, which wasn’t in the novel. In the film, Pollack inserts a scene where Mitch tells Abby about his infidelity on the beach in the Caymans. It was important for Pollack to insert this scene because he needed a way for Mitch to redeem himself through his convoluted plan; that was the driving force behind his plan – trying to win Abby back (who rightly walks out on him after he tries to apologize) – and what redeemed Mitch as the hero of the film. By doing this, he alters the ending by having Abby involved in the ending without Mitch’s knowledge to symbolize her forgiveness and willingness to start anew with her husband. It doesn’t work because it lacks the ambiguity that Pollack so often placed at the end of his film. It’s one of the rare times he gives his hero a happy ending (I have no doubts that two things played into this: 1. summer release of a hugely popular novel, 2. Tom Cruise).

Cruise and Tripplehorn are fine in their roles, but I don’t find myself drawn to the conflict that Pollack fabricated the same way I do previous Pollack couples. For one thing, it seems like Pollack always has Mitch half-heartedly trying to win Abby back after he spills the beans about the woman he slept with (again, Pollack’s need to shoehorn in a romantic motivation for his protagonist gets in the way of the story) making Mitch very unlikable when he’s around Abby.  In fact, I would argue that even though Pollack added this element to the film thinking that it would give some emotional weight to Mitch’s plan, the general interest is always in the will-he-won’t-he in terms of executing his scheme and getting out from under the control of the firm; it’s not in the will-he-won’t-he get the girl back even though Pollack spends too much time on this aspect. I guess I can’t fault Pollack’s additions (even if I don’t think they work) because Cruise is not the best person to play a flawed protagonist.

Throughout Mitch’s plan – and while he plays both the FBI, the mob, and the firm – he meets a number of interesting characters, and so if watching Mitch’s convoluted plan unfold is one half of the reason why I love The Firm so much, the other half is easily the supporting cast. There’s just so much to love about the supporting performances by – deep breath now – Hackman, Harris, Brimley (seriously, for the oatmeal guy to be absolutely terrifying speaks to how good his brief performance is), Hal Holbrook (playing firm partner Oliver Lambert), David Straitharn (Mitch’s incarcerated brother Ray), Terry Kinney, Sullivan Walker, Tobin Bell (primary hitman for the firm), Gary Busey (playing Ray’s old prison friend turned private investigator Eddie Lomax), and Holly Hunter (stealing every scene she’s in as Eddie’s secretary, Tammy, who ends up being an integral part of Mitch’s plan). My favorite of these are definitely Hackman, Busey and Hunter. The last two, especially, are given just brief moments together, but they’re so damn good it’s a shame there couldn’t have been a movie about Eddie Lomax, P.I. starring Busey. I would have paid to see that (this was before Busey went way off the deep end, too) as Busey is just so much fun in the typically maniacal way his performances are great.

I remember seeing The Firm in the theater (it had to have been one of my first R-rated movies in the theater) and loving it then, I remember buying the video through Columbia House (!) and loving it then, and looking at the film recently I still find myself having a blast with it. It’s not perfect (it’s not even close), but it’s an efficient thriller with a workmanlike aesthetic (John Seale’s cinematography is always nice to look at) and fantastic musical score (probably the best of any Pollack film). The obvious flaws still don’t deter my love for the movie. It’s languid pace leaves enough time for Pollack to focus the attention on the great supporting performances that swirl around the film’s star but also give the film enough time to breath in between its numerous scenes of plot layering.

I appreciated the pace of the movie because it allowed for scenes like when the firm knows Mitch is trying to put one over on them. It seems like Mitch’s house of cards is about to tumble; he’s done for. His only move is an instinctive one: to run (and really, one of the things you can definitely make fun when talking about The Firm is that it sure seems like a movie for fans of Tom Cruise running). After the first part of the foot chase, Mitch finds, briefly, refuge in the Mud Island museum. In a key scene, Mitch boards a tram; however, unbeknownst to him, the firm’s hitman (Bell) is on the adjacent tram going the opposite direction.  Pollack is able to create tension out of two trams passing one another by keeping the camera on Cruise the entire time. We briefly see Bell pass by in the other tram, but, wisely, Pollack stays on the contemplative Mitch – letting what has transpired so far wash over him – instead of following the other tram and taking the point of view of the hitman chasing Mitch. It’s the rare moment during a chase that stops to show the protagonist in a pensive state, and I loved the way Pollack’s camera, after we see Bell get off the other tram, pulls back in long shot and tracks the hitman running on the bridge above (Pollack did this with a mini-cam and a dirt bike) the tram’s tracks, trying to catch up to Mitch.

So even though the runtime and pacing may be a turnoff to some, I appreciate the way it allows Pollack to kind of just hang out with these characters. It allows Pollack to take his time with the plot, the tension, and still give his actors enough screen time to make an impression. Unlike Havana, the supporting performances here mean something because they all affect Mitch and his ability to execute his plan. Before every summer wannabe blockbuster was 160 minutes, The Firm probably tested audience’s patience; however, I think for the first time since Pollack started stretching the running time of his movies (starting with Out of Africa), it benefits the film here because of the star performance from Cruise, the great supporting cast that interacts with the star, and the entertaining way Pollack – like the old pro he is – slowly guides the audience through the convoluted plot. Thanks to Pollack’s sure-handed direction, we can at least feel satisfied with the way these things play out. Like David Grusin’s and his great piano score or the cover of the source material, Pollack expertly plays the audience and takes us for an entertaining – albeit ridiculous – ride.

Next, Pollack reluctantly remakes Billy Wilder.  


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