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Script Review: RUNAWAY JURY

Reviewed by Darwin Mayflower



NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.

Ive only read one John Grisham book in my short life. The reason I read it was because I was stuck in a hospital bed with a teeming bunch of people around me who spoke a language other than my own. The novel, THE RAINMAKER, was found sitting in a waiting room and given to me because it just happened to be written in English. Its a long story. But anyway...

I could have done worse. The book wasnt good, but it wasnt THE LOVE MACHINE, either. It was classic Grisham: lawyer story, clear good guy, clear bad guy, big, evil company, and a lawyer who is invested in law and will leave its treacherous ranks by the end of the story.

THE RUNAWAY JURY, the movie rights of which sold for eight starry-eyed million dollars, was given first-draft treatment by Grisham and T.R. Pearson, redrafted by Greg Poirier (GOSSIP), and then reinvented by Matthew Chapman. RUNAWAY JURY the novel followed Grishams early, missile-target format. The script, though, jinks to the left (with honors going to Chapman), and thats a good thing and a welcome surprise.

Only vaguely remembering talk of the book, I thought the script I was going to read was about this:

A huge corporation is being sued. They know they will lose the case. With runaway juries being what they are today, a settlement of two hundred million dollars is not outrageous. So they hire men, ostensibly jury consultants, to look into the lives of every potential juror. They find people with skeletons in their closets -- who cheated on a spouse, who is a drug user, who is gay and doesnt want their family to know, who has a wild, crime-filled past their boss wouldnt be happy about -- and blackmail them into finding their client innocent of the charges brought against them.

It sounded like a great plot to me and I was eager to read the screenplay. But hold on. I got it wrong.

THE RUNAWAY JURY involves jury consultants, but in the legal sense, really. And the story has more to do with a juror blackmailing the company on trial. I had visions of our legal system being violated from the outside in. A cruel mocking of the scarily fallible jury system. This story is even more alarming: it is a violation from the inside.

The book was about Big Tobacco. When poor BT started losing cases in real life -- with settlements in the astronomical -- the filmmakers assumed they needed a fresher kill and chose old standby Gun Makers. When the script starts out you think youll be reading a boring little-woman-versus-a-conglomerate story: When Celeste Woods husband died she bought a gun for her own protection. Shes cleaning the pistol one night when -- whoops! -- she shoots herself in the head (not fatally). The clip was out of the gun. Yet there was still a bullet in the chamber. She wasnt properly warned, she says, now pay up, Gun Makers! The GMs lawyer counters that if Wood had simply read the instruction manual, page one, she would see they explicitly warn that a bullet remains in the chamber when the clip is removed. Its the advertising, says Woods lawyer, that targets women and makes them think a gun will keep them faultlessly safe.

As I read this early section (badly made arguments in an obvious, Mickey Mouse case, missing all that good, lowdown lawyer juice), invented by this scripts main contributor, Matthew Chapman, I could only say one thing: this is terrible. Not only is it sub-David E. Kelley and sub-LAW & ORDER, its even sub-Grisham! (And thats pretty sub, let me tell you.)

We soon find out that the case itself is unimportant. Heres whats really going on: a jury member by the name of Nick is a former law student and with the help of his sexy, smart girlfriend, Marlee, has gotten himself on the jury (faking a different past) and is manipulating his eleven civil servants to his whims. Nick and Marlee are so proficient, they can tell the Gun Makers head strategist, Fitch, that the jury will be pledging their love for the flag and have the jurors come in the next day and say "Our Pledge of Allegiance"!

Nick and Marlee, who have been trying to get on just such a jury for years, want twenty million dollars or they sell their skills to the other side. Fitch and his right-hand man Doyle desperately scour their pasts for a weakness. They luck out on a few accounts: Nick is an orphan, always out to please; and Marlee is madly jealous and responds to Fitchs insinuations that Nick might be seeing an old girlfriend.

Outside of the scattershot, secretive-deals plot, this script has no resemblance to anything Grishams written. The script has a kooky charm. A pranksters ardor that propels it along at a swift, frenzied pace. Theres an irrepressible jollity to the proceedings -- for both the characters and us -- and it spreads easily all around. Matthew Chapman, who just wrote WHATS THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?, is clearly responsible for this. His influence works slowly into the script, but when it does it shoots the piece through with a new life. Our characters come alive and breathe; hilarious traits develop; the whole Grisham double-dealing hokum becomes a great black comedy. Three cheers for Matthew Chapman, the first person to make Grisham interesting by taking him into a new genre.

I dont know if its what the studio wanted, but by injecting humor into the story -- and by the third act were in a flat-out comedy -- was a brilliant idea. The script becomes less THE CLIENT and more THE STING and MIDNIGHT RUN.

Nick is a bit of a charming zero. Hes sort of designed to be a guy who morphs his personality to whoever hes around, but it leads to him being a bore rather than a complicated person. Marlee is a strong woman with a sharp wit. And Fitch, my favorite character, is an aged pro who is galvanized by the audacity and adeptness of his opponents. He sits back, stunned and elated, at each new daring move. His right-hand man, Doyle, is more like his long-suffering wife and they interact accordingly. With funny asides about Doyles weight and Fitchs slave-driving. (The jury is a grab-bag of nuts, both quiet and strident, and Chapman balances the line of making them "wacky characters" and keeping them lively enough to know them but far enough in the background to stay out of the way of the story.)

This script has a lousy opening and, like a dish that takes a few bites to settle in, it requires commitment to get to its sweet spot. Its charm is oddly sly. You dont realize its come on until it has wrapped itself seductively around you. The opening and what is to follow almost becomes a sort of side-by-side comparison of what was originally there and what Matthew Chapman brought to the project. (The best evidence I can think of why they should give this guy a raise.)

The script never takes a side in the gun issue...until the end, that is. And the finale is the scripts lowest point. Lets just say someone whips out a gun -- quite stupidly -- and "the true evils and apprehensive feelings for weapons come out." Its an eye-rolling moment and its a glaring, dissonant splash of red on an otherwise slick, with-it piece of writing.

When Im intrigued by a premise what I usually do is pitch it to people as if it were my own project. I did this with my jury-tampering idea and got great responses. I quickly saw, once reading the script, that this was not what the script was about. But once I got to the scripts real agenda and discovered its winking sense of humor and drollery, I wasnt disappointed -- I was overjoyed. The script had taken a sharp turn I never saw coming, and it fit and it worked and it was better than anything I had come up with in my head.

THE RUNAWAY JURY doesnt operate on the grand level of scam flicks like THE STING and THE LAST SEDUCTION, but it is better than its provenience would suggest and it soared above my own expectations. Considering the worth of most of what I read, at the end of the day -- whats not to love?

-- Darwin Mayflower.

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