Class Action is solid, well-made, engaging. In case you were wondering, mark that comment down as a positive review with a dash of disappointment. This movie is, very simply, a good story well-told, but it holds the capacity to do much more. There are moments when the film sears straight into the heart and mind, yet others when it clings a little too tightly to the safety of conventional drama.
Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio go head-to-head as an estranged father and daughter who face off in a high-stakes class action lawsuit. Hackman plays Jedediah Tucker Ward, whose quick wit and dedication to defending the little guy (sometimes to the little guy's peril) has made him a legendary hot-shot attorney. Mastrantonio plays his daughter Maggie, who has never had a good relationship with her father, but who did grow to share his passion for being a lawyer. The one major difference: Jedediah is a man on a mission to topple the world's evil, and Maggie works in defense of that evil. She has just made partner at a flashy firm, and is carrying on an affair with one of her superiors (Colin Friels).
The plot catalyst: Jedediah is solicited by a meek middle-aged man still suffering the consequences of a pretty serious automobile malfunction: his car blew up, and the manufacturer claims innocence. Jedediah of course views this as yet another opportunity for David to topple Goliath, and he takes the case, only to find out that the opposing lawyer is Maggie. She enters the case eager to prove her mettle both to her law partners and her flashy father, but quickly becomes wary of her client's unethical practices.
The classic screenplay structure would have the mild-mannered daughter be on the good side and the brash, passionate, ever-right father on the wrong side for the first time in his life. The daughter would come into her own and show the overbearing daddy that she is right. The way Class Action works, the daughter is wayward and is righted by her father, which is not as conventional but is equally rocky. The screenplay wisely avoids most of the Father Knows Best moments by depicting Jedediah as an arrogant jerk whose passion and skill has helped him reach spectacular professional heights, but has also bled into his free-wheeling, philandering lifestyle. Maggie is buttoned-up and tightly wound, but she harbors deep-seeded resentment for her father that ignites an iron will. When she discovers the depths to which not only the car company but also her own law firm are willing to go to win the case, she must weigh her desire to beat her father with her own sense of justice and moral decency.
Class Action is interesting from moment one: compelling story, sterling performances, wonderful interplay between actors with flawless chemistry. Hackman and Mastrantonio are fabulous and well-matched, with strong support from Laurence Fishburne as Jedediah's legal partner and Joanna Merlin as the wife and mother of the two opposing lawyers. Michael Apted's direction is solid and workmanlike -- nothing brilliant but nothing disastrous. The court case itself loses steam as the film progresses and the "big reveal" at the end is so anticlimactic that it actually happens off-screen. The screenplay is strongest when it focuses on the battle of wills between the father and daughter rather than a battle of arguments and evidence between two lawyers.
But what else should we expect from a film that is really less a battle of people and corporations than a battle between a fiery daughter and smug father. Jedediah has spent so long being passionate about law that he was an absent father. Maggie is so focused on proving her worth by beating her father that she has lost her moral compass. The smart thing about Class Action is that it uses a high-stakes trial not merely as a legal thriller but as a window into the emotional history of a father and daughter. Here is a courtroom drama where the interpersonal stakes are just as high as the legal stakes.
Sue the darkness.