(On Cable TV, April 2018) In my ongoing understanding of Hollywood history, I’m not sure I’m all that keen on the decade-or-so that led from the end of the Hays Code to the beginning of the new blockbuster populism. The bleak years between those two eras were dark, grim, unsparing and they still carry along their own particular brand of ickiness. So it is that Midnight Cowboy gives us John Voigt as a young Texan would-be hustler freshly transplanted in New York City, and Dustin Hoffman as a conman friend of convenience that falls critically ill along the way. It takes place in late-sixties New York, sometimes in rich penthouses but usually in squatted apartments, dirty streets and disreputable bars. Our dull-witted hero gets his illusion shattered, and even a final escape to Florida proves fatal for one character. For modern viewers, envelope-pushing films such as Midnight Cowboy (which did win an Oscar and thus remains part of the canon even today) present a challenge: While the film brought something new to cinema, helped launched the careers of Voigt and Hoffman and normalized serious hard-hitting drama about the American underclass. Nowadays, such things are far more common, and Midnight Cowboy looks a bit dull compared to what has followed. It doesn’t help that such films are, by their very nature, almost impossible to enjoy in a conventional sense. You take in the drama, reflect on it but never have to see the film again. It has the good fortune of being competently made, though, and that goes a long way in ensuring that it remains watchable, if only as a period piece. But it is bleaker than bleak, and it could have been remade almost verbatim as an early-eighties AIDS story. But of course, and this may be one of Midnight Cowboy’s selling point still—modern studios would never develop such a film: too bleak, not enough superheroes, no chances at a franchise or shared universe. Hollywood may have evolved but it may not have advanced.
(On TV, July 2015) Early-career John Grisham was often accused of writing the same story over and over again, but it’s a good story, and The Rainmaker boils it down to perhaps its simplest essence: A young Southern lawyer, basely out of law school, takes on the Establishment and wins –although the ending proves to be bittersweet. There isn’t much more to it, and there doesn’t need to be once the atmosphere and details are filled-in. A much younger Matt Damon plays the protagonist with a good deal of naiveté and steely resolve, with Danny DeVito turning in a rather good performance as his much more devious sidekick, and Jon Voigt is deliciously slimy as a seasoned lawyer with all the resources at his disposal. Otherwise, this is a film that uses a basic story as a framework for moments, giving us a credible insight in the life of a young lawyer working way above his head. The Rainmaker may not be the best movie adapted from Grisham’s work (I’m still partial to Runaway Jury) but it’s almost certainly the purest representation of what Grisham has spent a long time doing on the page.