The Films of Joel Schumacher

my 2018 personal Blank Check project

The Client (1994)

written by: Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell
starring: Susan Sarandon, Brad Renfro, and Tommy Lee Jones

There are lots of genres in which Joel Schumacher's particular talents are well suited and would be put to perfect use-- gritty crime thriller should certainly be one of them. So it is with some level of regret that I must report that I found The Client, his 1994 adaptation of a John Grisham novel, to be... overall pretty dull. It's handsome and stately, absolutely, but most of the time it's nothing special, coasting along on strong performances and carefully moderated ham from Tommy Lee Jones. There are a few moments of lovely visual flair, and some richly drawn warm scenes between likeable characters. That Schumacher knows what to do with a camera is nothing new; what this movie lacks is the liveliness of some of his more colorful films. It feels a little tired, a little bored. It's not as magnetic or tensely thrilling as it could, and probably should, be.

All of this of course is not to say The Client is bad. It's definitely not bad. I'd say it's a strong example of a certain kind of thing, and is perhaps exactly what we should expect from a studio capitalizing on a best selling populist novel. John Grisham doesn't exactly come with a literary cache, and so to expect an elevated movie off his material is perhaps asking too much. I had expected a little more from Mr. Schumacher, I admit, who is certainly capable of elevating essentially low-brow material. In this case, he seems not to put much effort into it, and the movie suffers for not having his usual, thoughtful touch. It's a shame, though, again, the final product is more than acceptable.

And, I admit whole-heartedly, it starts out very strong.

We are first introduced to the titular client, Mark Sway (Brad Renfro), an eleven-year-old boy from the wrong side of the tracks, in one hell of a tight closeup. It's a smart move-- Mark is a sensitive boy under all his tough swagger, and we get shades of that from this very first moment. Renfro is immediately winning. He's got a grounded, naturalistic toughness coupled with a tender gentleness hidden away underneath. It's a perfect mix for Mark, who has been forced to grow up too fast, but is still, of course, a child. He's cute, but not too cute, and despite occasionally being a little stiff with the dialogue, Renfro carries the emotional weight of Mark's increasingly unfortunate and dangerous circumstances very well. His mother (Mary Louise Parker), is young and in over her head, but trying her best to raise two young boys-- Mark and his sweet little brother Ricky. They live in a cozy trailer, their mom works all the time, and Mark steals her cigarettes.

It's stolen cigarettes that get them into trouble, as they sneak off into the woods to smoke their ill-gotten goods. These early moments are warm and playful, two boys trotting along forest paths and riverbeds. It's got shades of Huck Finn to it, a romantic southern childhood, poor or not. This is smashed up by the arrival of a big city lawyer, come to the country to kill himself. The brothers watch in horror until Mark tries to save the man, who catches him at it and drags him into his car. Here's the exposition of the movie, the inciting incident as they say, and it's a tense, noir-ish scene, which Schumacher plays tightly. The lawyer's face is slashed with hard beams of light; across the car, Mark still exists in a warm glow. Throughout the movie we get these harsh juxtapositions-- Mark's general existence is warm, despite his cool attitude towards it or the icy authority figures he encounters.

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Things really come alive when Susan Sarandon shows up, as small fry lawyer Reggie Love (what a name). Mark, under threat from criminals and cops alike, realizes he needs someone on his side and that someone turns out to be Reggie. She takes sympathy on him for being a wayward child in need of help, and finds herself deeply and increasingly invested in his case and well-being. She's smart and tough, unafraid of the bullying of the big time Feds who circle Mark's case, and unlike the Feds, she can recognize that he's clamming up because he's frightened. The big time Feds are led by Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), a blustery sort of government agent who's more interested in publicity than justice or fairness, or perhaps even the law. Jones is really chewing scenery here, but it works because Foltrigg is a scenery chewer himself. Surrounded by a circle of cronies, always (including Bradley Whitford in a minor role), Foltrigg is a force of nature, an explosive presence who dominates every scene and every moment, bursting into rooms and bullying his way into answers and results. He uses people brutally, abusing his power left and right to get what he wants. Jones's heavily lined face crinkles like putty when he smiles, in a way that looks perfectly false. That bluster hits a rock face when he goes up against Ms. Love, who is sharp and quick, and won't be blown over.

The pair of them form the interesting backbone of the movie, two sides who pull on Mark from different directions, and if more of the story was the two of them facing off in court together (of which there is one marvelous scene), one-upping each other and earning mutual respect, I would've been very into that. However, as it stands, I was essentially into the actual plot of the movie-- Mark, having been told where the literal bodies are buried by the doomed mob lawyer, finds his life and the lives of his family at risk. Knowing he can't tell anyone what he knows or go to the police with this information (at which point he would certainly be killed for ratting), he keeps the secret close to the chest as pressures squeeze in around him. Everyone wants him to talk-- Love, Foltrigg, his mother, the cops, the criminals who come to see what he knows. But Mark is stubborn and fiercely independent, and that independence at such a young age has made him defensive and angry. He thinks he can handle it on his own. The most satisfying thread in the movie is the slow burn growth of Mark and Reggie's relationship, as he comes to trust and rely on her, and believe he can trust her and let her take care of him and help him. It's a sweet through-line, and Reggie is a warm, richly drawn character. She's complicated and nuanced, and Sarandon carries the role flawlessly. Her cracks show, but her strength carries the day. I appreciate a movie that gives Susan Sarandon a real starring role to get into, and really shows her off. She's beautiful but drawn and tired, never just a tough lawyer or just a lonely woman or just anything. The casting, to be simple, is perfect. Even in small roles, actors like William H. Macy, Anthony Edwards and Anthony LaPaglia are perfectly used. Schumacher's inherent sensitivity gives each of these characters shade and complications-- the world is dark that surrounds them, but Mark and Reggie are bright, good, strong people who will fight for their lives; Foltrigg, though a jerk, finds respect for Reggie's legal prowess and even for Mark's boyish cleverness. Even the baddies have some nuance to them, arrogance or fear that we see in brief moments.

The fault, I think, is in the plot itself, which I lay at the feet of Mr. Grisham and to some extent the screenwriters (semi-notably, this is Akiva Goldsman's second script-- before he would go on to be a name you see in the credits of almost every major non-superhero blockbuster. He's all over the place, and many of the things he's all over are bad). It's a little too out-there for how grounded and lovely these characters are, and by the time Reggie and Mark road trip to New Orleans to dig up a body and have honest to god shenanigans, it feels pretty silly. Maybe this is Schumacher's problem too-- he hasn't found a visual balance that ties the plot to the people. There are moments of panache as Mark is pursued by murderers, a red morgue and a stark blue surgical theatre, but they feel out of place with the rest of the movie.

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There is a perfect shot of Mark and Reggie on a bench outside a courtroom, each framed by a glowing, separate box of light. They're together, but not quite in the same sphere yet. It's subtle and restrained. The film overall could use more things like that, more slightly unnatural but artful set ups to give the world a little more... oomph. A little something extra that makes movie machinations more palatable. That way, the mob plot would perhaps feel a little less, uh, dumb. Maybe this is mostly a personal bias, because I prefer my movies a little heightened. A little whimsy and wonder goes a long way for me, which is what I like about Schumacher's more extravagant movies. During the couple scenes that use bright coloration, I found myself thinking, "I miss this Schumacher." I miss the Schumacher of bright colors and extreme contrasts. I know I'll get more of it soon, but for now I thought The Client could have used a little more of that touch. Or maybe even a little less-- in the same way that Dying Young works by being visually subtle, maybe the couple more extreme moments here needed to be toned down. Either way, there's a disconnect. For my money, a little more drama would have served this movie well. It's a dramatic plot. Might as well get a little dramatic in the filmmaking.

This is not to say there aren't effective moments throughout, and beautiful set ups. It's almost like Schu occasionally just can't help himself. The final shot of the film, of a plane over a glittering body of water, bathed in gold and amber light, is one of the most stunning shots I've ever seen. It's gorgeous and lingering. I wish there were more shots of that quality in the film. It feels a little passionless, a little "for hire". But there are sparks, as always. Schumacher remains, as ever, good with actors-- in the small moments, things shine. A scene where Reggie, searching for a particular piece of paperwork, finds mementos of the children she lost in a divorce and has a quiet cry in the garage is exemplary. And there are plenty of scenes like that: where Reggie straightens Foltrigg's tie, sending him off to the press conference he's wanted the whole movie, finding herself totally content without the publicity; where Mark tries to cheer up his little brother; where Reggie brings Mark's mother fresh clothes and some emotional support. Even a moment where the mobster bad guy (LaPaglia, in a series of pretty astounding outfits, really) realizes he's not in the good graces of his mobster family any more plays out in quiet, painful understanding across the face of the actor. Schu is so good in the small moments of the movie, one wishes he could similarly deliver for the whole picture. Where in movies like Flatliners or Cousins, or even Falling Down or St. Elmo's Fire, I could point out five or ten moments of cool choices or powerful camera work, or interesting control or character work, The Client has only a couple of those, at most. It doesn't shine like I've come to expect a Schumacher movie to shine.

And so, unfortunately, overall, the movie is simply functional. It's a little flat. It's very middle of the road. It's not as gripping as other Grisham adaptations (the best of which is The Firm), nor as interesting other Schumacher joints. There's not much risk in it. It's not even a very lively legal thriller-- if a movie like A Few Good Men can draw genuine drama out of exclusively courtroom dialogue scenes, you'd think a movie with hired killers and hidden corpses could eek out more than a couple of tense sequences. It's a little disappointing, but that must be because I was expecting a lot more. I feel like I'm giving this movie a hard shake, and that feels unfair. It's just... middle of the line. It's a fine movie, very competently made, effective enough, but it's not great, and not special, and not particularly interesting to me on any of the levels I'd want. These characters are good, and the performances are good, and sometimes it's good to look at, but boy I just couldn't really get into this one. It didn't get into my heart at all. There was something simply missing. What is it? Was it too slick? Too cheesy? Not cheesy enough? Not fun enough? Too heavy? I'm not entirely sure. Maybe it was just too much of a thing I've seen before.

Overall: ★ ★ ★
Schumacherness: ★ ★

Up next: Batman Forever (1995)