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Tom Cruise in 1993's "The Firm."

The Firm September 1, 2016

Mitch McDeere is at the top of the world.  He’s just graduated from Harvard Law with top marks, has a pretty wife to come home to every night, looks like a star athlete, and is wanted by nearly every firm residing on the East Coast.  Only twenty-three, his face is elastic and characterized by noticeably naive aspiration, as if waiting to be weathered by years of soul-destroying work and stress that won’t relent until he finally decides to throw the towel in and call it a day.


As 1993’s The Firm, adapted from the best-selling 1991 John Grisham novel, opens, Mitch’s life is yet to be marred by a reality that bites.  He’s in the midst of a long-winded interviewing process, jumping from firm to firm in hopes to find something that might suit him.  Confident but not cocky, he’s not so taken with the many offerings that promise a starting salary just north of $50,000, that promise him that he’ll be part of a law-practicing family of hundreds.  He’s young and he’s sanguine, aware that he’ll most likely have to settle for a few years of disappointing pay and a lot of shed elbow grease.  But he wants more.


So everything changes when Mitch steps into Bendini, Lambert, & Locke, a small, Memphis based outlet.  He expects little but ends up startled — the firm, despite being comprised of a mere forty-one lawyers, boasts an ability to hand out $100,000 a year to its most successful employees, the steep mortgage necessary to purchase a top-dollar suburban home, and even a BMW to park in the driveway.  How a business can afford to provide such a breathtaking salary and such unfathomably generous amenities is beyond Mitch — but because money is seductive and because he doesn’t know any better, hardly a split second passes before he decides that this is the place he wants to work for the rest of his life.


He and his wife, Abby, jump from Boston to Memphis without batting an eye.  With cash this good, they’ll be living a jet-set lifestyle in no time, and nothing’s more persuasive than going from broke college students to country club lounging power couple in a matter of months.  In the weeks following, they settle in nicely.  Mitch likes his colleagues and is thrilled by the long nights, and Abby has found a pleasant job at a local elementary school, befriending the wives of Mitch’s peers effortlessly.


But there’s something unsettling about Bendini, Lambert, & Locke that draws skepticism from the two.  Though initially fine with his all work and no play schedule, the unending hours (sometimes climaxing at twenty a day) begin to grate on Mitch’s resolve and the vivacity of his once hot-blooded marriage.  Abby is provoked by her new friends’ constant reminders that the firm likes healthy marriages, wants gobs of children running around the house, and has never seen a divorce nor an unhappy home, as though imperfections are deadly.  Several of the firm’s lawyers have died under mysterious circumstances in a relatively short timespan.


So suspicions are given weight when the FBI corners Mitch out of nowhere and brings his worst fears to life.  All in front of him, it seems, is a sham, a front for corruption, Mafia linkages, and unspeakable evil. Bendini, Lambert, & Locke is more mob than firm.  Mitch is given two options: he can either turn a blind eye and end up eventually spending the rest of his life in prison, or he can work as a quasi-double agent who will never be able to live as Mitch McDeere again safely.  Because he’s played by Tom Cruise and because few’d be inclined to watch a movie or read a novel whereby the protagonist does nothing when he could be doing something, Mitch, of course, goes with the latter offer.


And so begins nearly three hours worth of abstruse deception, betrayals, and heated exchanges.  In reading Grisham’s novel did I find The Firm to be a wonderfully stylized thriller in which personality clashes and suspense charged passages were more exciting than conspiratorial loose-ends.  Occupied by characters I grew to care about and characters I loved to hate, it was the kind of beach read a casual reader such as myself looks for in a book.  I yearn for forgettably explosive thrills, thrills I can quickly eat up only to trade off for something else that reeks of quickly-written crowd-pleasing immediately after.


But because Grisham is no Agatha Christie and is less reliant on formula than like-minded authors like James Patterson and Harlan Coben, I felt alive while reading The Firm — it’s pumped with a sort of urgency mostly found in blockbusting action movies that remind you that blockbusting action movies aren’t so bad as long as they’re done with a couple of sparks of originality


And yet the film adaptation, long-winded and punishingly complex, struggles to capture the book’s palpable electricity, maybe because the material itself seems better suited to a miniseries or because two-and-a-half hours is too long for any movie that doesn’t have the cast size or storytelling ambition of Magnolia. It has the requisite tools to be characterized as a masterpiece of a legal thriller — it’s soundly directed by Sydney Pollack and is intelligently written by top screenwriters David Rabe, David Rayfiel, and Robert Towne — but it deepens its convolutions to the point of being incomprehensible. While it mostly stays true to its source material (until it heads toward the conclusion and decides that Grisham made mistakes in wrapping things up), its furies and its tensions are, more often than not, lost in translation.


But a lot of it is commendable, and The Firm, regardless of its lacking of comprehensive sense, can be stirring. Cruise is efficiently cast as McDeere, possessing the face of a man who’s both believable as a hero of a man and an everyman. Jeanne Tripplehorn reassures us that Abby is far too whip-smart and strong-willed of a woman to be forgotten in the wife role.  I especially liked Holly Hunter’s Tammy, a street-savvy polymorph of a secretary who aids Mitch after her boss is shot down after Bendini, Lambert, & Locke steps in, and I liked Ed Harris’s FBI man Tarrance, whose ruthlessness and GI Joe ballsiness sketches him as a power player you’d be wise not to mess with.  Hackman is particularly heartbreaking as an idealist ruined by years of bribery and crooked office politics. 


Most memorable, though, is the image of Cruise, wearing his flawlessly ironed monkey suit and anxiously clutching his briefcase, running through the streets of Memphis as bad guys chase after him with the intent to shoot to kill.  A hero who risks his life to bring justice into this cruel world will never stop being an interesting type of protagonist, and Cruise recalls the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford of many moons ago.  But The Firm, with its burdensome running time and its many complexities, wants it to have it all but can’t have it all.  It’s a collection of fiery moments, performances, and conversations that never quite come together cohesively.  B-


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