Legal drama. They used to be a dime a dozen. They’re going to get people flooding into theaters, they’re going to make some money, they’re going to give some movie star — Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Matthew McConaughey, whoever it is — a place to shine. opportunity. The star would deliver rousing speeches, go toe-to-toe with other actors during cross-examination, and make desperate appeals to the jury that were only truly effective if they were also able to captivate an audience.
However, the days of John Grisham adaptations have passed, and legal dramas no longer have the cultural cache they once did. So The Burial, a new film from director Maggie Betts based on the true story of small business owners taking on big corporations, will hit theaters in October after a one-week limited run. Releases directly on Amazon Prime on the 13th.
What a pity! “Funeral” has all the hallmarks of a solid, old-school legal drama from yesteryear, backed up with a feel-good sensibility that’s more than just for casual viewers. Bates, who co-wrote the screenplay with Doug Wright, may not reach the staggering heights of some of the best films in the legal canon, and the intrigue in the courtroom doesn’t always make you feel like these ostensibly great lawyers are very good at their jobs. But Bates has a real eye for humor and charm. The best thing about “Funeral” is that it elevates its star’s natural charisma and plays on those timeless, reliable legal movie tropes we know and love.
“Funeral” begins in 1995, when funeral home owner Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself in serious financial trouble. He decided to sell some of his funeral homes to a large company called the Loewen Group, hoping to make enough money to maintain his other home and funeral insurance businesses. But as Lowen Group continued to delay finalizing the contract and Jeremiah continued to lose money, he decided to take the company to court.
Enter Willie E. Gary. Willie, played by Jamie Foxx, is a personal injury lawyer who moonlights as a preacher, owns his own private jet, and wears expensive watches and jewelry. On the face of it, he doesn’t look like the kind of lawyer who would have a seat at the table in contract law disputes. But Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Assi), the young black lawyer in charge of Jeremiah’s case, insisted that Willie join. The county where the case was filed is predominantly African-American, meaning the judge and majority of the jury are likely to be black. And Jeremiah’s longtime attorney and friend Mike Allred (Alan Rooker)—a smug lawyer with a white background from Mississippi—can’t do it.
“Funeral” is at its best when it focuses on the performance of the courtroom rather than the substantive machinations of the legal system. In driving the plot forward, the film has some trouble, as the top lawyers we’re presented with fumble their way through day-to-day operations — at one point, Willie unprepared to bring Yeah Leamy was put on the witness stand, and there were numerous instances where even the simplest background research seemed incomplete. But one thing it does get right is that the success of any lawyer depends on their ability to execute. The morning of the trial was a montage of flashcards and speech rehearsals. There is no room for impromptu, passionate preaching and leaving no stone unturned – everything must be well prepared.
The racial makeup of the trial venue prompted Loewen to hire its own black attorneys, including lead attorney Mem Downs (Jurnee Smollett). That strategy, in turn, transformed the case from a contract dispute between two white men into one centered almost entirely on race, following the two attorneys’ efforts to curry favor with the jury. The entire case hinged on the Loewen group’s ties to the black community, even though Jeremiah himself was not part of the community. Jeremiah’s team cannot prove absolutely that Loewen Group deliberately delayed the finalization of his contract, but it can provide evidence of Loewen Group’s misconduct in other areas. To do this, however, the case must rely on showmanship. So, like many of the best legal dramas, this movie relies on stardom.
There is probably no current Hollywood actor or movie star who is as good at acting as Jamie Foxx. When we first actually meet Willie, he’s defending a man who was hit by an 18-wheeler while riding his bicycle while drunk. We’ve seen him preach, and it’s clear that his ability to connect with people is his greatest asset. In the courtroom, the camera zeroes in on him in the manner of a moth attracted to flames, sliding and swaying as his movements change from grand to subtle. He was a magnet for the jury, the cameras and the audience. Fox possesses an effortless confidence that commands attention no matter what room he’s in. He was quick with a funny remark or a sharp rebuke, but was always affable – and when questioning witnesses he had the demeanor to make one feel like he was their best friend, but he hid behind a shark’s smile .
Foxx’s character’s verbose style and physical frivolity contrasted sharply with Jones, who at this point in his career was exuding a sweet old grandpa vibe. Their connection, their odd couple energy, is what really holds the film together and is another aspect of “Funeral” that makes it feel like a relic from another time.