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‘Class Action’

By Joe Brown
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
Under 17 restricted

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In these litigious and libidinous times, movies about lusty lawyers looking for love and loopholes are hotter than a jury box in July. But given the continuing popularity of "L.A. Law" and "Equal Justice" and even "The People's Court," a courtroom drama that hopes to make an appeal had better have a gimmick.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, "Class Action," the new movie by director Michael Apted, has got a new twist. How does a father-daughter rivalry grab you?

The court calls the case of Gene Hackman vs. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio:

Obnoxious and endearing, Hackman is at the top of his scene-stealing form as crusading civil liberties lawyer Jedediah Tucker Ward. With earthily idealistic sensibilities bred in San Francisco's Summer of Love, he's the last champion of the underdog, and tenacious as a terrier. He's an entertainer, strutting and fretting on his stage, accustomed to leaving courtrooms to standing ovations.

Mastrantonio shows a subtler sort of steel as his by-the-bookish daughter Maggie, an up-and-coming attorney at a slick corporate law firm. Ambitious Maggie's '90s career drive is fueled by the rage and resentment she feels toward her father. With her timing and intelligence, Mastrantonio would make a terrific lawyer if screen roles suddenly dried up.

Maggie, who is having a sub rosa affair with her boss (played by Colin Friel, who seems to be specializing in oily execs after his turn in last year's "Darkman"), needs a splashy case to push her to the top of the crop of baby lawyers. Along comes the "partner express," a class action case in which Maggie would be defending an auto manufacturer charged with making exploding cars. Best of all, it means going head to head with Dad on a neutral playing field, the courtroom.

So, acting (out) against the wishes of their sainted wife and mother, memorably played by sympathetic and sexy Joanna Merlin, father and daughter square off against each other, throwing sparks in the courtroom and dredging up family history after hours. Though she relishes the chance to compete with her father, Maggie finds herself drawn uncomfortably into a web of nasty corporate tactics and intimate conflict of interest.

Setting the absorbing legal legwork and minutiae against the local color and light fantastic of San Francisco, Apted gives this smarter-than-average script a slick look and expertly develops suspense. Even factoring in the film's disappointingly gooey, TV-lawyers coda, "Class Action" is one of this week's class acts.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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