By Marc S. Sanders
Tulane Law Student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is unbelievably lucky. She can find herself being pursued by one white guy in a suit after another over the course of a two hour movie and will be fortunate enough to escape every threat by sheer chance. It’s only to her benefit when she is being chased by two assassins in a creepy downtown parking garage that someone left an angry doberman in a car to startle the killers. As well, it’s really a blessing that Darby has caught on that if an engine sputters when turning the ignition it can only mean one thing – car bomb! GET OUT!!!!!
Darby is the main protagonist of The Pelican Brief directed by Alan J Pakula, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel. When the eldest and the youngest Supreme Court justices are murdered, Darby conceives of an outrageous conspiracy stretching all the way to the President and documents the whole rundown in the so-called Pelican Brief. She shares the document with her law professor who shares it with his government friend who shares with the CIA who shares it with…and so on and so on.
Pakula is an under celebrated director when you consider his better thrillers like Presumed Innocent, Klute, and especially All The Presidents Men. Here though, I think he got a little lazy with his screenplay and direction. The Pelican Brief is a little too paint by numbers.
Sure, the film has suspense. I think Grisham’s story has some convincing weight to it where wealth and government won’t stand for the platforms of environmental causes and therefore people have to die. Still, while the meat of that story eventually surfaces, we are left with A LOT of buildup before Darby gets involved. Just a lot of white guys in different office buildings walking down hallways, entering doorways and talking on the phone. Every so often we come across a DC crack reporter, Grey Grantham (Denzel Washington) who gets a phone call from a potential informant. When that guy gets scared and hangs up, thank goodness Darby just happens to call two seconds later regarding the same story. Good on you Grey for being by that telephone.
That’s my problem here. Pakula just works in the lucky conveniences to keep Grey and Darby on the trail. Neither of them ever truly escape a bind on their own. Neither of them ever truly dig the hole any deeper without something COMING UPON THEM to help them along at just the right moment.
We learn a safe deposit box belonging to a dead character exists. Darby just strolls into the bank and posing as the widow, who is not a signer on the box, is just asked for her address and phone number. No proper identification necessary. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me it’s that easy? Folks, hide your valuables because I’m gonna be robbing you blind.
Pakula will even set up a good scenario where Darby thinks she’ll be meeting someone who can help but it’s an assassin ready to kill, only suddenly the assassin is killed while holding Darby’s hand in a crowded courtyard. Wow!!! Lucky again, Darby. I’m still fuzzy on who actually killed the guy. That didn’t concern Pakula though. It’s explained in a quick throwaway line before the credits roll. Pakula only had to get Darby out of danger again. So let’s see he’s got the barking doberman for something else, the engine sputter will be used later on. Hmmmm??? Meh!!! we’ll just have someone randomly kill this guy. Now run, Darby. RUN!!!
Notice I haven’t talked about performances. Well, there’s not much to them. The Pelican Brief boasts an impressive cast of character actors like Sam Shepherd, Anthony Heald, John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci, Robert Culp and John Heard. Yet, these guys, along with Roberts and Washington are flat. Just reciting their lines when the cues call for them. There’s nothing very exciting to any of them really. Very monotone. Roberts is beautiful yet depressing even before she gets caught up in the mystery. Washington, while handsome, does not seem to have the gusto that Pakula’s reporters did when he directed Hoffman & Redford. Grey is too neat, physically fit and tailored for an always on the job, aggressive reporter looking for a scent.
There was a better movie to be made here, thanks to some convincing motivations that were started with Grisham’s novel. Unfortunately, Pakula just didn’t devote enough respect to the original author’s imagination.