Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:52 - Released 12/25/98

Q: What's the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? A: One is a bottom-dwelling, garbage-eating scavenger. The other is a fish.

There are entire websites on the Internet full of jokes like that, about those personal injury lawyers whose TV ads promise results or no fee. In writer/director Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action, John Travolta plays one — Boston attorney Jan Schlichtmann, a bottom-feeder who grows a conscience. But in Zaillian's outlandish story line, Jan grows a little too much conscience for his own good. And a little too much to be believed.

Based on a true story by Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action features fine acting by some of the best in the business. Travolta turns in another good performance as the wealthy, conceited lawyer who lives on other people's misery, but like his Jack Stanton character in Primary Colors, has more heart than he or we give him credit for. Robert Duvall, whom I have never seen do a poor job, is again exquisitely subtle as Jerome Facher, the experienced "big dog" attorney Jan goes up against. And William H. Macy, whose face is appearing in more and more of the best films, adds his nervous manner to the proceedings as Jan's increasingly desperate accountant.

The film begins with a voiceover of Jan describing what kinds of clients are more profitable than others. A seriously injured middle-aged white man, for instance, is more "valuable" than a dead child. By contrast, the people in the small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, are the least profitable. They've had several children die of leukemia. They think it has something to do with the town's bad-tasting water supply, but they don't know who if anyone is contaminating it. However, when Jan travels there to turn down their petition for a class action suit, he sees an old tannery operating on the riverside, dumping waste materials into the water. Then he notices the Beatrice Foods logo on one of the vehicles. Cha-ching.

Jan decides to take up the cause, since Beatrice is one of the richest conglomerates in the U.S. But somewhere along the line, his gold-mine case turns into something more for him, and his sense of justice outgrows his pocketbook.

This movie is a fascinating look at the justice system from the bottom-feeder's perspective, very much along the same lines as Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker (1997). We all want to believe that our case could be the one that turns the money-grubbing stereotype personal injury lawyer into a crusader for true justice.

My only real problem is with the script. It becomes a little outlandish when Jan runs his company completely into the ground amid generous settlement offers, simply because he wants to show that he "can't be bought." Being bought, according to his coldly mercenary opening soliloquy, is exactly what he is in business for. Also, I find it hard to swallow that his partners (played by Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek) would go so far as to mortgage their homes to continue trying the case they didn't want to try in the first place. I'm sure the real Jan Schlichtmann took quite a loss with this case, but I doubt he had his employees hocking their gold kugerrands to pay the company's bills.

A Civil Action features excellent acting and a compelling story, but suffers from the same flaw as so many other true stories brought to life on the silver screen. Thinking the plot too boring to be marketable, Hollywood spin doctors doctor it up — and accidently amputate its credibility. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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