Pelican Brief, The



Main Cast: Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Joseph, my manager, approached me with a truly inspired idea – he was contacted by a major publishing house asking whether I would be interested in publishing my memoirs.  It’s an idea that had never really occurred to me in the past as my career is obviously still in its glory days, but the advance being offered will be enough to pay for the damage to the engine room on the yacht where our little controlled burn for the renovation TV show got just a little bit out of control.  Replacing two diesel engines and a propeller shaft wasn’t in our original budget figures. 

A work of this magnitude will certainly require several volumes

I immediately put Phoebe, my new intern on gathering up all of my scrap books and memorabilia files to begin abstracting important career highlights that will need to be included.  I then sat down at my laptop, opened it up and typed the immortal words Veni Vidi Vicki: A Memoir by Mrs. Norman Maine followed by two paragraphs of absolutely scintillating prose.  I immediately emailed those to the publisher who wrote back quickly that they would assign me a private editor/co-author to help with the heavy lifting.  After all, a star of my magnitude with all of my important commitments won’t be able to spend hours a day chained to a desk.

My new editor, a Mr. Mayhew Blumengroh, is apparently the best in the business at coaxing the details of a life well lived out of a subject and helping them find just the right words to bring them to literary life.  I just know it will be a best seller and then there will, of course, be a film adaptation with what better choice to play young Vicki Lester but yours truly.  Bio pictures of important cultural figures in the entertainment industry are always in style and, if I play my cards right, I could pick up another Oscar.  I’ve always wanted one at each end of the mantle.  After all, if Rami Malek could win for playing a lesser light, imagine what Vicki Lester as Vicki Lester could be.  I wonder what we’d call it?  Too bad A Star is Born is already taken. 

Full of reveries and future plans, I retired to the home theater looking for the film equivalent of comfort food, something from a previous generation which might bring up some pleasant memories of the past and the great stars of the silver screen of yesteryear.  Flipping through the films available on Netflix, I ran across The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington from 1993 in the previous millennium when both were at the peak of their stardom.  Based on a best selling airport paperback by John Grisham, and directed by Alan J. Pakula, it epitomizes the sort of adult studio prestige production that is no longer made in Hollywood as it contains no superheroes, no Disney characters, and only a couple of small explosions that have actual plot function.  I vaguely remember having seen it in the theater with Norman back in the day and decided it might be worth a rewatch.

The Pelican Brief begins with the assassination of two supreme court justices (Hume Cronyn in one of his last roles and Ralph Cosham) by an international terrorist straight out of Frederick Forsyth (a young Stanley Tucci in a stunning toupee).  There is much consternation in Washington amongst president Robert Culp and his various functionaries including Tony Goldwyn, John Heard, James B. Sikking and William Atherton.  Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a law professor (Sam Shepard) who once clerked for Justice Rosenberg (Cronyn) becomes interested in possible motives that might tie the two assassinations together.  He’s busy having an affair with one of his students, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) and she decides to puzzle it out,  writing a brief for him on a possible motive/conspiracy theory which is dubbed the titular Pelican Brief (for reasons that become clear later in the film). 

Shepard passes it on to his friends in DC where it becomes a hot potato as it implicates the administration and soon nefarious cover-ups begin.  An unexpected explosion convinces Darby that she got way too close to the truth and she goes on the run, but not before contacting an investigative reporter (Denzel Washington) who starts asking uncomfortable questions of the DC types.  The two eventually team up to crack the case together while trying to outrun the FBI and an assassin or two.

There’s a good deal of plot in The Pelican Brief, a lot of DC suits running around who seem relatively interchangeable and have little to no character development, and a great deal of the outcome hinging on various legal maneuvers that are the hallmarks of Grisham’s novels in book form.  The adaptation, by director Pakula, is straight forward, keeps all the balls in the air, but is singularly uninspired.  Pakula is no stranger to paranoid political thrillers having made All The President’s Men and The Parallax View but even he can’t find much in the way of character in the source material. 

He’s not helped by the casting.  Julia Roberts, then at the height of her stardom as the it girl of the 90s plays Darby as a malcontented waif, and seems to think that seriousness and earnestness are best portrayed by looking constipated.  None of her radiance as a performer is allowed to come through and she only smiles once in the whole film, the last shot.  I think it’s supposed to signify her escape and moving on but the smile and horsey bray of a laugh is what made Roberts so endearing and withholding it from us for two and a quarter hours, even in scenes where normal people would have some positive emotions, is a sort of mental torture.  Denzel Washington is perfectly adequate, but he’s playing against a blank when he’s with Roberts and there’s absolutely no chemistry between them and in his other scenes, he’s more or less in ‘just the facts ma’am’ mode. 

The best things in The Pelican Brief are the scenes of early 90s New Orleans filled with extras obviously told to be as goofy as possible.  They bring some life to the proceedings.  The supporting cast isn’t bad.  I particularly liked John Heard (long a dependable presence in films of this type) and Sam Shepard has a rough charisma that makes his few scenes somewhat interesting.  A young Cynthia Nixon turns up in a small role as does John Lithgow.  Neither makes much of an impression.

I wanted to like the film much more than I did.  It’s competent, but flat.  Where it should be champagne, it’s ginger ale left open on the kitchen counter overnight. Some of it is the source material. (None of the Grisham film adaptations are as riveting as the page turner novels they are based on.) Some of it is the casting.  Pakula probably did the best he could with what he had but Julia Roberts is no Meryl Streep (whom Pakula had directed a decade before in what is arguably one of the best performances of the 20th century as Sophie in Sophie’s Choice).  The Pelican Brief is harmless, and not a bad time waster, but there are better things out there.

Dead night nurse.  Porn garotting.  Gratuitous videotape confession. Vehicular explosion. Steamboat assassination. Pelicans in flight. Parking garage chase. Payphone stake out.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction

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