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‘The Firm’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 02, 1993

On the current paperback bestseller list, Michael Crichton holds three of the top six spots with his techno-thrillers, while John Grisham holds the other three with his tales of attorneys in jeopardy. Sci-fi vs. sue-fi.

So it seems inevitable that these two literary titans would battle it out this summer for the top movie title, too -- the sharklike lawyers of Grisham's "The Firm" go up against the voracious dinos of Crichton's "Jurassic Park" for your vacation dollars. "Jurassic" has all the visceral thrills, but for grown-ups, the more cerebral "The Firm" is far scarier -- what could be more terrifying than a pack of hungry tax lawyers?

Tom Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, an ambitious young Harvard law school grad. He's the No. 1 draft pick, surrounded by suitors from the biggest firms. And as Mitch scoots cockily from interview to interview, "The Firm" looks like just another variation on Cruise's patented young hot-shot roles of the past decade. But Cruise has grown substantially as an actor, and "The Firm" means to expose the underbelly of the amorally acquisitive '80s.

After a lifetime of struggle, this poor boy (who, in an amusingly Clintonesque twist, keeps a ne'er-do-well brother under wraps) can write his own ticket, and a small Memphis firm comes up with a luxurious offer that trumps all the others -- they'll pay off Mitch's student loans, provide a low-interest mortgage on a charming house (which they'll furnish oh-so-tastefully) and give him a silver Mercedes. To say nothing of his starting salary. (Lawyers in the preview audience burst out laughing at the first glimpse of the firm's Versailles-scaled conference room.)

"We're a small firm but a large family," company head Hal Holbrook (who could look more trustworthy?) tells Mitch at a cozy welcoming get-together. Meanwhile, at the same office party, Mitch's wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is picking up Stepford Lawyers vibes. "The firm does not forbid wives to take jobs," one spouse tells her. "The firm encourages children."

Soon Mitch is working too hard and too late, and an increasingly suspicious Abby is resenting him as she broods alone in their posh cocoon. Tipped off, Mitch discovers that colleagues have been dying with alarming frequency -- no insurance company would consider this firm a good risk. As the plot zips from Memphis to the Cayman Islands to Washington, Mitch sees beyond the unbelievable perks, and finds himself in a life-threatening double- and then triple-bind. This is one case in which it really helps if you haven't read the book.

Cruise was born to play company man, and the role is an opportunity to sum up his old roles and transcend them with his most potently emotional work. Tripplehorn gives Abby a welcomely elegant and alert presence. And Gene Hackman turns in a sympathetic, humorous performance as Avery Tolar, Mitch's "designated mentor." Sharp-eyed D.C. theatergoers may recognize Bart Whiteman, who founded Source Theatre, as "Dutch," a guard who opens a door for Cruise.

Directed by Sydney Pollack, "The Firm" rides like Mitch's Mercedes -- and just look at these options! The screenplay was adapted by the heavy-hitting trifecta of David Rabe, Robert Towne ("Chinatown") and David Rayfiel. The rich cast can afford to feature such stars as Ed Harris, Holly Hunter and Gary Busey in relatively minor roles. Pollack has set the climactic chase scene on foot, and no cars are blown up or even smashed. And the unusually effective jazz piano score by Dave Grusin is a refreshing change from the usual choices of hysterical orchestral, ominous synths or lame pop songs.

One caveat, however: "The Firm" makes lawyers look interesting and exciting.

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