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‘Class Action’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 15, 1991


Michael Apted
Gene Hackman;
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio;
Colin Friels;
Joanna Merlin;
Larry Fishburne;
Jonathan Silverman;
Jan Rubes;
Matt Clark;
Fred Dalton Thompson

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Clarence Darrow obviously forgot all about Hollywood when he said, "There is no justice -- in or out of court." Justice is served most gratifyingly in Michael Apted's polished "Class Action," an ethical dilemma worked out through a juicy family feud. The mores of the '60s weigh in against those of the '80s when a ruthless young corporate lawyer takes on her flower-powered father in a San Francisco courtroom. Grounded in a good cause but never puffed up or preachy, the father-daughter drama transcends the issues.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Margaret Ward, an elegant, edgy daddy's girl who remains furious with her father for neglecting her in childhood. She provides the class and Gene Hackman the activism as Jedediah Ward, a rumpled civil liberties lawyer whose intimate interest in the women's movement broke the spirit of his wife (Joanna Merlin) and enraged his daughter. All her decisions spring from her desire for vengeance.

Attorneys don't come more rapacious than Margaret Ward, whose next case promises to win her a coveted partnership in the city's preeminent firm. Unknowingly manipulated by the boss (Colin Friels), who also shares her bed, she agrees to defend an auto manufacturer in a suit brought by her eloquent dad. The plaintiffs, all of them burned, maimed and grieving for lost families, blame their tragedies on a flaw in the design of a highly touted sedan.

Jedediah treats his clients like family, reassuring them with his interest and a rough pat on the back. Margaret takes these sad, sympathetic witnesses and pitilessly discredits them, in one case confronting a wheelchair-bound father with pictures of a crash, his shrouded wife and child. And the scales dip in the corporation's favor as the plaintiffs falter and the evidence mounts against their case. When Jedediah's position seems most hopeless, Margaret unearths a piece of corroborating evidence. It's up to her to win her father's case.

A first screenplay for writer-producer Samantha Shad, "Class Action" is based on the lawyer's experiences as one of the first women to work at a major Washington firm. Screenwriters Carolyn Shelby and Christopher Ames brought 10 years of craftsmanship to the textbook script. In their hands, you willingly suspend disbelief (would a judge see no conflicts of interest in such an arrangement?) and enjoy the filial fireworks.

Still, it is the fierce accord between Mastrantonio and Hackman that distinguishes the movie. It's a pairing as elemental as ice and water, one the frozen essence of the other. Gifted with humor and warmth, attracted to hopeless causes and beautiful women, Hackman's Jedediah is a lightning rod for his daughter's exasperation. When she loses the first round in the case, he rubs it in even as he tries to make it better: "Come on, I'll buy you an ice cream."

As judicial divas go, Mastrantonio is caught somewhere between "Jagged Edge's" sexually gullible Glenn Close and "Music Box's" Oedipally blinded Jessica Lange. That's not to say there is a shred of feminist dogma in the subtext of this engrossing film. The emphasis is on the stuff that comes of having sat in daddy's lap too much or, as in this case, not enough.

On its more cerebral level, "Class Action" is, of course, one of two new films to address the ethics gap between the people and the powers that be. The mood ring turns, Aquarius ages, and Mr. Smith is back in town.

"Class Action" is rated R for sensuality.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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