Grisham lets us down again by denying us the fun of trying to fit the pieces together by tossing in a confusion of villains, until at long suffering last, we give up and wait for his resolution.
The musical score of "The Pelican Brief" plays at full throttle for over two hours in a constant warning that if something frightening isn't happening at the moment, it will in a minute. By definition of sustained suspense, the movie wins on the music alone. Add to that a strong cast and two outstanding performances by Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington and you have the makings of a good thriller. But there are three problems.
All of them are John Grisham. This is the second time a major Grisham movie melts out from under itself at the two-thirds mark. "The Firm" never recovered its steam after a fast start, and this one doesn't make it much further. Grisham lets his batteries run down. There is nothing left to surprise us, no final sizzle.
Grisham lets us down again by denying us the fun of trying to fit the pieces together by tossing in a confusion of villains, until at long suffering last, we give up and wait for his resolution. We have to get used to the fact that the great numbers of people chasing Roberts and Washington are driven by a bewildering array of motives and movements - the CIA, FBI and foreign terrorists among them.
Finally we have to accept the premise that Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), a 24 year old law student, has the knowledge of a Capitol Beltway insider, the lingo of a journalist, the skills of a covert agent and the smarts of James Carville. This is the least offensive of the film's problems because Julia Roberts is so convincing in the role, conveying both the fear and intelligence such a heroine must have.
Darby Shaw is in mid-affair with Thomas Callahan, her law professor, when two Supreme Court Justices are murdered, one of them a former mentor of Callahan. Darby closets herself in the archives until she has produced "The Pelican Brief," her solution to the crimes. The brief finds its way to the White House and the FBI which are implicated by association, and Darby becomes the target for an army of agents. In desperation, she contacts reporter Gray Grantham at his Washington newspaper to enlist him as co-conspirator in proving her case.
Julia Roberts is consistently good as the smart gal in charge. Denzel Washington plays her support system with dignity and charm, and together they build a thoroughly convincing chemistry. Sam Shepard is effective as the lover hobbled by drink, John Heard is a fine dumb-but-good FBI man, and Tony Goldwyn is terrific as the presidential mouthpiece. Robert Culp plays the chief executive as a comic amalgam of the last three Republican presidents.
In a movie about two smart, scared people dodging car bombs, underground shoot-outs and stranglers, don't even ask why the people who need them dead don't just shoot them in a drive-by. All those agents need someone to chase. Roberts and Washington overcome the major flaws to make it a good roller coaster ride.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 501
Studio: Warner Brothers
Copyright (c) Illusion
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