Synopsis: Inspired by true events, a lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice.
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, Amanda Warren, Dorian Missick
Director: Maggie Betts
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Let’s not forget the power of the rousing David v. Goliath courtroom drama because director Maggie Betts and her co-screenwriter Doug Wright sure haven’t with The Burial. It may be old-fashioned, overlong, and frequently pandering to cliche (one summation is played to a horn-drenched underscore so loud it nearly drowns out the speaker). Still, it worked like gangbusters with our packed crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). When I saw the film at TIFF, I imagined it would play to perfection in theaters and homes when released, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Set in 1995, the film follows a standard formula where a little guy (a small-town funeral company) is taken advantage of by the big guy (a big-town funeral company) and needs the help of a shiny savior. What makes The Burial interesting is that the little guy is played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones (Ad Astra), who we might often associate as the one who would swoop in and save the day for Jamie Foxx (another Oscar winner), who instead is playing a flashy lawyer used to working with much more prominent cases. Convinced to take on Jones as a client for the broader impact to marginalized groups that would also be affected, Foxx’s Willie E. Gary may begin the trial with one purpose but gradually comes to see the overall justice being served.
These types of films don’t get made anymore, at least not with the kind of regularity that we were used to. Thundering opening statements, “gotcha” cross-examinations, late-breaking reveals that threaten to derail the case, all the elements that made audiences think that trial cases were as exciting as a broadcast wrestling match. Of course, years of CourtTV have shown us otherwise, but movies like The Burial remind us how a little Hollywood magic can turn the mundane into grand, if unbelievable, entertainment. That Betts has also made a good-looking and easy-to-watch film on top of it is almost icing on the cake.
Plagued by health problems that have been front-page gossip news lately, this is a terrific role for Foxx (Django Unchained), who has played this kind of fast-talking, slick character before but not without quite as delicate a balance between the showman and the concerned citizen. Also noteworthy is that Jones seems to have tuned up his gritty grimace to nearly a smile at points. That’s headline news in my book. Betts and Wright also give Alan Ruck a good showing, and I love the continued ascension of Jurnee Smollett (Lou), who shows up here in a level-headed supporting role as Foxx’s opposing council. Shades of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men will resonate with the viewer when Bill Camp (Boston Strangler) takes the stand late in the film…and that’s not a knock on Camp’s steely performance.
This is a perfect film to see in a packed theater with an audience that will respond to the highs and lows of the trial, but don’t pass it up if you can only see it at home. With the holidays arriving shortly and family visiting, even with an R rating (for language), The Burial would be a prime choice. There’s enough good spirit rousing to go around.