Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Jamie Foxx, Datari Turner, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman and Bobby Shriver Director: Maggie Betts Screenplay: Doug Wright and Maggie Betts Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Bill Camp, Mamoudou Athie, Amanda Warren, Pamela Reed, Dorian Missick, Lance E. Nichols, Billy Slaughter and Alan Ruck Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Prime Video
There’s always room for an entertaining courtroom movie, and Maggie Betts’s, based on a real-life trial and adapted from a November 1, 1999 New Yorker article about it by Jonathan Harr, fills the bill. Though it might not break new ground, so to speak, “The Burial” is an engaging mix of humor, sentimentality, and uplift—an underdog courtroom tale elevated by an inspired pairing of lead actors. And that’s true despite the fact that from a legal point of view, the actual court proceedings represented what some would call a travesty of justice.
The plaintiff in the civil suit is Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), the elderly owner of a group of Mississippi funeral homes who also runs a burial insurance business. Under financial duress from state insurance inspectors, O’Keefe instructs his long-time attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) to investigate a possible purchase of some of the funeral homes by an expanding Canadian firm headed by Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). They reach a deal in a conference aboard Loewen’s yacht, but afterward the mogul delays signing the contract and providing the payment O’Keefe has been depending on.
O’Keefe decides to sue Loewen’s company for failure to meet its obligations. He’s encouraged by Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a young lawyer on his team, to consider hiring Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a flamboyant, incredibly successful Florida litigator, to become his lead counsel, even though his specialty is in personal injury cases rather than contract law. Dockins reasons that given the fact that the case will be heard before a black judge before a predominantly African-American jury in one of the poorest areas of the state, it might be useful to have a charismatic black man at the helm, and O’Keefe agrees.
The Loewen company responds by hiring a black lead counsel as well—here Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), an ambitious, beautiful woman with a sharp mind and an equally incisive courtroom manner. (In reality the counsel hired by Loewen was a man, though like the fictional Downes a most able lawyer.) When the trial threatens to get bogged down in contract arcana, Gary impulsively puts O’Keefe on the stand early on, only to see the unprepared man shredded by Downes’s cross-examination. O’Keefe backtracks and reappoints Allred as his chief counsel, only to have his family’s racist past called into question, leading him to withdraw from the case and Gary to resume the trial in his place.
What follows is a display of the sort of extravagant courtroom theatre that Gary was known for. He calls witnesses to paint the Loewen’s company as a predatory outfit that preys on the poor, even targeting black church organizations in the process. And his cross-examination of Ray Loewen himself is cannily designed to encourage the jurors to see him as a crassly uncaring millionaire with no concern for common people.
Of course, one can argue that such matters really had nothing to do with what was, after all, a contract case and that Gary was allowed to play crudely on the jury’s emotions, and from a coldly legal perspective, that would be correct. But whether rightly or wrongly, the evidence was admitted, and the jury returned with a verdict in favor of O’Keefe, hitting Loewen with huge compensatory and punitive damages. The film portrays this as a triumph of David over Goliath that deserves to be celebrated, and notes with satisfaction and Loewen was removed from his position with his company, which went bankrupt not long afterward. Whether that’s a legally defensible outcome is a matter of debate, but it works on the feel-good level of the movie.
One could also quibble over other divergences the film makes from the actual record, but one in particular stands out—the decision to change the gender of Gary’s main antagonist. One could understand it if the makers had intended some romantic flirtation between her and Gary, but he’s a happily married man, his wife (Pamela Reed) portrayed as supremely loyal and supportive, and so the slight frisson that occurs between Gary and Downes when they share drinks in a hotel bar has a slightly unsettling vibe, though the conversation remains relatively businesslike. Smollett brings energy and sharpness to their courtroom exchanges, though.
In any event, it’s the unlikely camaraderie that develops between Gary and O’Keefe that’s the centerpiece of the picture, and in the hands of the two leads it comes off nicely. The over-the-top lawyer who’s a supremely confident self-made man is a perfect fit for Foxx, and he runs with it, using his usual bag of tricks to excellent effect. By contrast Jones is all quiet decency and gentility as the principled O’Keefe, and he underplays beautifully, bringing not only charm to his scenes with Foxx but genuine pathos to those he shares with Amanda Warren as O’Keefe’s wife. Adding to the mix are Camp, who snarls up a storm as Loewen, and Athie, whose enthusiasm as Dockins is infectious.
Shot in Louisiana, “The Burial” has the polish of an MGM theatrical release though most will see it streaming on Prime Video, with both the production design (Kay Lee) and costumes (Mirren Gordon-Crozier) first-rate and Maryse Alberti’s widescreen cinematography crisp and, especially in the out-of-court sequences, quite attractive. The editing by Lee Percy and Jay Cassidy is of a piece with Betts’s sprightly pacing, while Michael Abels’ score adds zest or schmaltz as appropriate.
One might object to some elements of the case “The Burial” builds, but in the end the verdict must be that it’s a winning crowd-pleaser.