Underdog stories, whether in sports movies or courtroom dramas, usually are fairly predictable.
“The Burial” (R, 126 minutes, on Prime Video), a courtroom drama directed by Maggie Betts (“The Novitiate”), doesn’t break a lot of new ground. And, though it’s “inspired” by a true story (which I always take to mean it plays fast and loose with the facts), it doesn’t always ring true.
But that doesn’t stop it from being very entertaining.
The primary reason for its success is the pairing of Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, who play off each other like the pros they are.
Jones is Jeremiah O’Keefe, the reserved 75-year-old owner of a small chain of funeral homes in Mississippi. Financially strapped, but wanting to keep the business in the family, O’Keefe reluctantly agrees to sell off some of his holdings to the giant Loewen funeral home business. The deal goes south, and O’Keefe believes Loewen, headed by CEO Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), hasn’t acted in good faith. He sues.
Even though it’s a contract dispute, he hires flamboyant personal-injury lawyer Willie E. Gary (Foxx), who has never lost a case. Aside from Gary’s skills as a dynamic orator and dogged competitor, O’Keefe, who is white, hires Gary because he’s black, knowing that, given where the trial will take place, the judge and jury are likely to be black. Loewen responds by hiring a black lawyer – accomplished Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) – to lead its defense.
As it turns out, race does play a key part in what transpires during the courtroom battle that ensues.
As in many underdog tales, the “good guys” have their peaks and valleys – and the valleys sometimes suggest that the case is lost. But then there will be a last-minute discovery that provides hope. It’s almost paint-by-numbers in the way it follows the genre formula.
But Foxx, as a vibrant, flashy extrovert, and Jones, as an aging, modest introvert, make an engaging team, convincingly showing how opposites can see the good in each other and form a strong connection. The film is at its best when Foxx and Jones share the screen and their characters share small moments that bring them closer.
Foxx’s performance, especially, is one of the year’s best. *** (out of four)
Why do I feel like the Ty-D-Bol Man?
Imagine you’re floating around in a toilet.
You know, a typical Friday night.
You look up, and there’s a giant hand on the toilet handle.
The hand pushes the handle down.
There’s a loud “Whooosh!”
That’s how I felt watching “Fair Play” (R, 113 minutes, on Netflix).
Maybe I should have saved the toilet scenario above for something despicable, which “Fair Play” isn’t. It’s not a particularly bad movie, either. It deals with a relevant topic about gender issues, and it features a strong performance by lead actress Phoebe Dynevor.
But the world it depicts, where greed and ruthless ambition reign, made me feel like I was trapped in a cesspool or a toilet (like that old song goes, “Call me … scatological”).
Granted, you could probably say the same thing about the greed and ruthless ambition displayed in “Succession” or “Mad Men,” both of which I loved, or, hell, even “Othello” and “Macbeth.” But in the case of all four of these examples, patience is rewarded; something about their stories or characters transcends the awful values involved. The same isn’t true of “Fair Play.”
It begins with Emily Meyers (Dynevor) and Luke Edmonds (Alden Ehrenreich) getting engaged after having sex (well, attempting to have sex) in a restroom (hmmm…) at Luke’s brother’s wedding. Emily and Luke are analysts at the same Manhattan hedge-fund firm, where it’s dog-eat-dog but the perks of success are lucrative. The firm forbids interoffice romances, so Emily and Luke hide the fact that they are not only in a relationship, but live together.
An opening for a promotion – as a portfolio manager – comes up, and Emily hears through the grapevine that Luke’s getting it. Instead, Emily is invited to a late-night meeting where the merciless firm CEO, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), tells her she’s getting the upper post.
Engaged and a promotion. Great news for the couple, right?
But there’s the matter of Luke’s masculine ego. Can he handle having Emily as his immediate supervisor? He says he’s happy for her and will support her. Will he? Why shouldn’t he?
Human frailty being what it is, though, it’s not that easy for Luke, which means things are far from easy for Emily.
Actually, they get pretty hellish for both of them. Their workplace environment doesn’t help. Campbell’s cruelty sets the tone for an office made up mostly of shallow “Bro” types who laugh at the misfortunes of others as they battle each other for that next rung up the hedge-fund ladder.
This is where the toilet comes in. Writer-director Chloe Domont engulfs us in a world of awfulness, and leaves us, and her characters, there to wallow in it. Sure, we sympathize with Emily and the way she’s treated. Naturally, for instance, her male colleagues (including Luke) unfairly assume that Campbell has promoted her solely for her sexual allure. And we can’t help but feel good when she proves them wrong.
But it’s hard to become truly invested (sorry) in a story in which Emily and Luke essentially aspire to become variations of Campbell. It’s like trying to care about the result of a game in a sport for which you have zero interest.
I kept waiting for a reason to care about this story and its characters. It never came. **
Del Toro, Silverstone boost so-so ‘Reptile’
The music for “Reptile” (R, 134 minutes, on Netflix) is like something out of a horror movie.
Composed by Yair Elazar Glotman, the score is intense, sometimes jarring, promising terror just around the corner.
It’s great, but there’s a problem: The music promises what “Reptile” rarely delivers on the screen. This modern film noir has its virtues, but jolts – or surprises of any kind – aren’t among them.
Directed by Grant Singer, whose specialty to this point has been music videos, “Reptile” stars Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols, a veteran cop investigating the murder of a real-estate agent (Matilda Lutz) in a town in Maine. There are several suspects, including the victim’s boyfriend/business partner (Justin Timberlake). The more Nichols uncovers, the more convoluted the case becomes. But, like most heroes in such films, he’s determined to solve the mystery, no matter the personal cost.
Del Toro’s Tom Nichols makes the perfect disillusioned film-noir protagonist. Though he appears happily married (a rarity for such characters) and appears to enjoy drinking and playing cards with his cop buddies, his face often tells another story. He looks tired, with a heavy sadness lurking just beneath the surface. Nichols’ demeanor tells us he’s seen a lot of things in his life, a lot of bad things, and this has taken its toll.
There’s also a hardness to the character, revealed in a riveting scene that has nothing to do with the overall plot but provides insight into how this man has been able to survive in such a corrupt world. At the same time, we see that he’s a man of character, someone who can resist temptation (a major theme here).
Alicia Silverstone (Del Toro’s co-star in “Excess Baggage” more than 25 years ago) also is outstanding as Nichols’ wife, Judy. Judy is no mere supporting character in her man’s life; Silverstone plays her as a true partner, a complex, charismatic, intelligent, strong person who is arguably a lot more interesting than her husband.
Though the film’s plot, including its resolution, is routine, Del Toro and Silverstone keep things interesting. I’d love to see them return as these characters in a more compelling story. **½
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Tomatometer-approved critic. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.