Runaway Jury

“Runaway Jury” is the eighth movie to be based on a John Grisham novel, and it’s all been done since 1993, when “The Firm” came out. I’d wager that in the ensuing decade, only Shakespeare has been adapted for the big screen more often.

So there they are, side by side. Shakespeare and Grisham, Hollywood’s go-to guys when you need pulpy, easily adapted material. “Runaway Jury” is not a particularly good movie, though, and unlike most Shakespeare-based films, I haven’t read the source material involved here, so I don’t know if the badness was inherent or if it was introduced in the adaptation process.

I do know that while the book was about a tobacco company being sued for millions as various forces pulled the strings on the jury, the movie has changed it so a gun manufacturer is on trial instead. I don’t know why the change was made, but it seems wrong-headed. A vast majority of Americans will concur that tobacco is bad and serves no useful purpose in our society, and therefore won’t be upset if the plot seems outrageously anti-tobacco. The numbers are a lot more evenly split on guns, though, which means if you make a film that is deliriously anti-gun — like this one is — you’re bound to put some viewers off. Heck, I’m anti-gun, and I thought, “Wow, this film sure is anti-gun.” Do the filmmakers really think matters of gun control are as one-sided as matters of cigarettes? Can Hollywood be as out of touch with America as the ultra-conservatives like to say it is? Hollywood vs. the ultra-conservatives: Who do you root for in THAT battle?

At any rate, it is a gun maker on trial, two years after a disgruntled employee walked into a stock broker’s office and wiped out several co-workers. The widow of one of the victims is suing, represented by down-home (but classy) New Orleans lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman). His opponent, representing the gunmaker, is Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), but that’s irrelevant: His REAL opposition is Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), the “jury consultant” Cable has hired to assist in stacking the deck against the plaintiffs before the trial even begins.

Rohr is baffled, even amused, by the idea of jury consultants, but agrees to let an eager young one named Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven) be his. And thus begin the games. Fitch, paid millions by the evil, evil defense to ensure a victory, finds all the dirt he can on the potential jurors, weeding out the ones he fears he can’t manipulate or blackmail. It’s all Green can do to keep up.

But then there’s a wild card. Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) has been assigned jury duty and is unable to get out of it. Somehow, he makes it onto the jury. And then he’s behaving strangely, coordinating events so the judge is buying the jury lunch, instigating disqualifications among his co-jurors, that sort of thing.

There is also a mysterious woman named Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who calls both sides and declares she can turn the jury either way, depending on which lawyer pays her the most money.

The problem with all these forces working to determine the trial’s outcome is similar to my previous Hollywood vs. ultra-conservatives dilemma: We don’t feel like rooting for any of them. Hackman is delightful to watch, as always — this is one of the world’s most reliable, consistent actors at work — but his character is slime. Hoffman’s lawyer is more likable, but I can’t tell you a single thing about his personality; he’s a cipher. (Hoffman and Hackman, in their first film together, have one chewy scene of verbal sparring that takes place in a restroom. For a minute, you forget how average the movie is, because these two actors rise above it.) Juror Nicholas Easter? Likable, of course, since he’s played by John Cusack. But we don’t know which side he wants to win, or why he’s doing the odd things he’s doing, for most of the film. Ditto the mysterious Marlee.

How can we choose a hero to cheer for when we don’t know who the potential heroes are or what they want? The film, competently directed by Gary Fleder (“Don’t Say a Word”), is full of intrigue and all, but has nothing to back it up. To borrow a phrase from Hollywood’s other favorite writer, it’s much ado about nothing.

C+ (2 hrs., 3 min.; PG-13, some profanity, some violence.)