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A Civil Action


The Filthy
Critic says:
"It's Pretty

I forget who it was that first wrote "April is the cruelest month" on the wall of the Ralston Amoco men's room, but he was wrong. It's January for movie critics.

In January, I would rather haul ruptured septic tanks out of the frozen ground than watch a new movie every week. Everything released is either a hopeless pile of shit that a studio dumps into the winter wasteland like toxic waste into Woburn, Massachusetts, or it's some overly-dramatic slop that got limited release in late December so people would get nominated for Oscars. Either way, the average joe looking to be entertained is reamed.

I have goosestepped to avoid the biggest turds. I slipped past "Patch Adams" and "Stepmom," only to put my big foot right into a "A Civil Action."

"A Civil Action" is neither a terrible movie nor a good movie. It doesn't invite feelings. It just lays there like Mrs. Filthy did that time she ate five pounds of uncooked pancake batter. Let me list what it does have and you can decide whether you want to go see it.

  • a gazillion scenes of courtroom testimony
  • two billion gripping legal depositions
  • lawyers fighting over money
  • lots and lots of self-important voice-overs
  • dialog contrived so that the characters get to say big important things.

John Travolta is a slick personal injury lawyer who finds himself involved in a big-ass case against some very large corporations. Children from the small town of Woburn, Mass. have been dropping like flies and the parents ask Travolta to sue the companies responsible for polluting the drinking water. He's a little guy, the polluters are big guys. Because he's a dirty ambulance chaser, he only accepts the case after learning that the polluters have deep pockets.

As the case goes on, Travolta has many opportunities to settle with the corporations' team of supersmart attorneys for a large profit, but he can't. Through this case, he learns to fight for justice and the truth, even if it bankrupts himself and his law firm.

"A Civil Action" doesn't treat us like we're a bunch of retards and I will be forever thankful. It assumes we didn't just walk out of "The Waterboy." By Hollywood standards, the story is not completely black and white. That means the bad guys don't have AK-47s and run over babies, and we're left to make a few observations for ourselves. The movie also does a decent job teaching us why lawyers are amoral, and that they aren't necessarily evil pricks. They have a job to do and it's not to force their morals onto others, just like it is my job to clean the gas station's bathroom, even if I disagree with the assholes who feel they must piss directly onto the floor.

But while all that teaching is going on, there is very little of interest going on, and very little to root for or against. The characters are so Goddamn boring that I'd rather watch old man Wilson mow his lawn. Especially, if he busts off another sprinkler head.

Travolta is tubby. He slouches a lot and wears big clothes to hide a doughy tummy. I'm not sure what he is trying to do with his character, and I think he's perplexed by the task of playing someone who is not obviously good or bad. So, like all overmatched rich guys, he plays it right down the middle, afraid to give us anything to like or hate. He's boring as hell.

Robert Duvall, as the corporate lawyer, is not boring. He's fucking weird. He plays the nut who turns out to be smarter than Hollywood expects us to think he is. We're supposed to think, "Hey, this guy's a freakin' loony so he can't be smart," only to have our assumptions knocked on their asses when the guy turns out to be a wiz. Of course, by now, we've seen this character enough times to know what to expect. Problem is, the screenwriter bogged Duvall down with so many lame quirks and tics that he can't climb out from under them.

The rest of the cast is uniformly dull and sleepy. They literally stand in the background of every scene with tense faces, wondering if they are playing their characters right.

Of course, how much acting is there to do when all the movie is is depositions and court room testimony? The actors can only give each other so many "knowing" glances before they've used all the variations up. Not that we would notice, since we're

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falling asleep. Personally, if I wanted to see a lot of courtroom drama, I would have pleaded "no contest" to my urinating in public citation. What I don't get in daily life is Hollywood starlets taking off their tops, and that's the kind of shit movies should have more of.

Finally, I wonder why the subject matter wasn't dealt with in a Movie of the Week. It's a true, melodramatic story, children died and the bad guys got punished, leaving the parents almost smiling. It's not a gripping story for the ages; it's boring. Some Hollywood jerk must have got a wild hair up his ass about making a statement movie, and Travolta was thinking Oscar.

In the meantime, "A Civil Action's" real audience - the dedicated viewers of Lifetime - must sit at home and watch yet another rerun of "Don't You Kill My Daughter!" I give it Two fingers for normal people, and three fingers for Movie of the Week fans looking to get out of the house.

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