Monday, October 3, 2016

Master Acting Classes: The Firm (1993)

Sydney Pollack’s 1993 The Firm, out of a John Grisham novel, is a thriller about a young Harvard Law graduate named Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) who is wooed and hired by a prestigious Memphis firm and then discovers that anyone who’s ever tried to leave it has wound up dead. This sounds like the premise for a sci-fi fantasy – you expect to find out that the partners are body snatchers or the undead – and considering how preposterous the plot is, it might have been more satisfying if it had been. (The firm’s real secret, that it launders money for the Mafia, is both dumb and flat.) And Cruise is awful. In one episode, his mentor, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) – the characters’ names are more entertainingly florid than the story line – takes Mitch along on a business trip to the Cayman Islands, where he’s seduced on a moonlit beach by a young woman (Karina Lombard) he rescues when he finds her being slapped around by a date. Cruise is so inexpressive in this interlude that all he can manage is a wary, semi-frozen stare. Like a lot of his parts, this one shows off his athletic prowess, in this case his running, and it sure is a lot more impressive than his acting.

The picture goes on for two and a half hours, but it’s far from a waste of time. The dialogue by David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel has some color and humor, even wit, and the screenwriters and Pollack, an actor’s director if there ever was one, showcase an amazing supporting cast. Between them, Hackman and Ed Harris (with a shaved head and brown horn rims), as Wayne Tarrance, the agent who tries to blackmail Mitch into helping the FBI with its investigation of the firm, find dozens of ways to ironize their lines, though at some point, when Mitch starts outwitting Tarrance, Harris dumps the irony and plays the character for menace, disgust and temper. The more he explodes (usually obscenely) the funnier he is. Hackman’s Tolar is a bad guy who turns out to have a conscience; it’s buried underneath years of corruption layered on his soul like mold. And as playful and sexy as he is – when Tolar tries to bed Mitch’s fed-up wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Hackman’s voice acquires a coat of velvet – he gets as close to giving his character authentic depth as any actor could have.

The firm’s senior partner is played by Hal Holbrook, with elegantly waved silvery hair and a dapper mustache; it’s not much of a role, but he gives it the benefit of his finesse. Wilford Brimley, playing amusingly against type, uses his homey quality in a sinister fashion as the head of security, Devasher. That underrated performer Terry Kinney plays another one of the partners, Lamar Quinn, as sensitive and sympathetic, a man caught in a nightmare. He has an affecting stillness in the scene where, after Lamar gets the news about two lawyers in the firm killed in an explosion, Mitch finds him in his backyard with a cigarette and an unopened beer; when the camera gets closer, he looks like a spooked robot. (One of the men was a friend, who left behind children the same age as Lamar’s.) The screenwriters miss a trick late in the movie when Mitch is running from Devasher and his creepy albino hit man (Tobin Bell) and by chance Quinn’s wife (Barbara Garrick), out with the kids, spots him and innocently mentions it in a phone call to her husband. When Devasher and the creep (identified in the credits as The Nordic Man) catch up to Mitch, it’s obviously because Lamar called in the information. But we don’t see him do it, or even see him on the other end of the phone line with his wife, so we don’t get a chance to watch Kinney negotiate Quinn’s tension over turning over a friend and colleague to a killer. It’s an unhappy omission that makes it seem as if the movie’s forgotten that we’re supposed to think Quinn has some complexity.

Gary Busey gives a wild-card performance as a fast-talking – he seems amphetamine-driven – private eye named Eddie Lomax (a moniker that could have come out of Raymond Chandler) who’s sleeping with his married secretary, Tammy Hemphill (Holly Hunter, with teased blonde hair that she later dyes auburn). The two actors get a jiving rock ‘n’ roll energy going together, so it’s too bad Eddie gets killed off fast. Hunter survives, though, and she does wonders with her role, which suggests an amalgam of some of the best bits by supporting actresses in forties and fifties noir: a little Gloria Grahame, a little Thelma Ritter, a little Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep. She’s sassy and sashaying, and she holds her eternal cigarette as if it were a pointer (and she does something funny with the way Tammy exhales the smoke). Tammy may lose Lomax, but the movie’s smart enough to match her up with David Strathairn as Mitch’s older brother Ray, in jail for accidentally killing someone in a bar fight. When Mitch goes to see Ray in the joint and Ray figures out that the only way he could have landed such a coveted job was to hide the fact that he has a con for a brother, Strathairn has an affecting moment of muted disappointment before assuring Mitch that he would have done the same thing in his shoes. Later Mitch tells Abby that Ray tried to make it easy for him, and that’s exactly what we see him doing in this scene. (The plotting here is really slack: what are the chances that a firm that keeps such careful tabs on its lawyers wouldn’t have found out about Ray before hiring Mitch?) All of Strathairn’s serious takes are in this exchange with Cruise; afterwards he gets to have fun, especially when he finally makes a pass at Hunter. “I love your crooked little mouth,” he quips, and when she assures him, “That’s not my best feature,” he replies, “Wow. Then what is?”

Gary Busey, Holly Hunter and Tom Cruise.

Steven Hill, who died at the end of August, shows up as a Department of Justice dude with a great name, F. Denton Voyles. He gives this tiny part his trademark wised-up, ulcerated vividness and that way he always had of twisting up a sentence to give the key words extra moral weight. And Paul Sorvino has an uncredited walk-on as one of the Mafiosi (Joe Vitarelli is the other one); it’s not much, but he does get to inject the line, “I’d like to kill every fucking lawyer,” with B-gangster-picture oomph.

Jeanne Tripplehorn, a talented actor, does what she can with a mostly crummy part. She’s best in the early scenes, where she brings a canny, 1930s-romantic-comedy presence to her scenes with Cruise (though mostly what you keep thinking is that she’s way, way too good for him), and in the late ones, with Hackman, where she gets a lot going at once emotionally. Really, though, the movie doesn’t belong to its sort-of heroine any more than it belongs to its hero. It’s all about the character actors, and I can’t think of any Hollywood movie that’s ever displayed so glittering a crew of them.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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