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As the last new film to open at Washington’s last surviving independent arthouse, Beaumarchais the Scoundrel is perhaps insufficiently momentous. As an example of the sort of wit and style unlikely to be provided by the season’s major-studio releases, however, this 18th-century romp will do fine.

Beaumarchais was directed by Edouard Molinaro, whose work has been invisible in the U.S. since La Cage aux Folles II, and adapted (by Molinaro and Jean-Claude Brisville) from an unpublished work by the late writer/director/actor Sacha Guitry, Franklin et Beaumarchais. (Benjamin Franklin has only a small part in Molinaro’s version.) Guitry was known for his stylish if not fastidiously accurate treatments of French

history, and this is certainly in that tradition. Where Guitry’s work was usually stagy and static, however, Molinaro’s film is a kinetic wide-screen spectacle, convincing in its period detail and energetic in its pacing and camera movement.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is best known as the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, and even those politically barbed comedies are better known in operatic (and apolitical) rewrites by, respectively, Rossini and Mozart. Figaro’s denunciation of the aristocracy got Beaumarchais imprisoned and the play temporarily suppressed; its sentiments have been credited with helping to inspire the French Revolution.

Beaumarchais was, the film concedes, a relentless philanderer and accumulator of wealth. Indeed, in his time scabrous rumors even suggested that the writer had killed his first two wives when he tired of their presence but not their fortunes. In Molinaro’s version, however, he’s also a boyish charmer whom no one could dislike for long, not even his third wife Marie-Therèse (Sandrine Kiberlain), who was upset by his dalliances with other women, or his faithful secretary Gudin (Manuel Blanc), who argued that his boss shouldn’t let politics distract him from his writing. As played by Eric Rohmer regular Fabrice Luchini, Beaumarchais is a combination of James Bond, Oscar Wilde, and Robin Hood, a revolutionary in a brocade jacket.

The film follows Beaumarchais from theater to boudoir to court—as both a judge and a defendant—and to jail. He’s imprisoned repeatedly, an occurrence the real Beaumarchais probably didn’t take as lightly as does the fictional one, who sanguinely explains that “I work best in prison.” (Guitry himself was imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, which he spent performing as usual in Paris, but the charges were ultimately dropped.) The writer is sent as a spy to England, where his contact is the beautiful, cross-dressing Chevalier de Éon (Claire Nebout), and then becomes an arms dealer supporting the American Revolution. Characteristically, Beaumarchais is entranced by the Declaration of Independence but indignant when the Americans attempt to pay their bills with a Congressional commendation rather than cash.

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There’s not much potential for drama in a movie in which the lead character is both charming and nearly always right. Indeed, Beaumarchais’ depiction of its title character recalls the performances of mainstream Hollywood actors who always try to maintain their likability regardless of the role. Still, Molinaro does arrange the occasional comeuppance for his twinkling-eyed hero, and it is easy to sympathize with a man whose antagonists include Louis XVI.

Molinaro is wise to end the story before the arrival of the Revolution, during which Beaumarchais himself was threatened with the guillotine because he had friends among the nobility (including Michel Piccoli’s Prince de Conti). Given the horrors to come, the film’s blithe tone would soon be upturned by social cataclysm. That would hardly suit Beaumarchais, whose elegant, idealized compositions suggest a series of paintings by Jacques Louis David more than a real world about to be drenched in blood.

If the Airplane/Naked Gun guys were still working together, it would be about time for them to make a John Grisham parody. They could cast Leslie Nielsen as the corrupt senior partner and, as the crusading young lawyer, maybe Matt Damon. Erstwhile cinematic heavyweight Francis Ford Coppola has gotten there first, however, hiring Damon to play the crusading hero of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. This is not to be confused with Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose visual flair is lacking in the director’s subsequent films, but at least it’s not as flat as Jack, the director’s previous attempt to pay off the mortgage on his Northern California winery.

The Rainmaker is formulaic in plot and merely functional in execution, but it does have a sense of fun. Whether it was Coppola, who wrote the script, or Grisham himself, someone realized that the novelist’s Memphis attorney fables have begun to resemble sitcoms. Although Damon’s Rudy Baylor is yet another well-meaning untested lawyer who has a great case thrust upon him, he’s given a frankly comical sidekick: Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), a former insurance man who has repeatedly failed the bar. And whereas Grisham’s heroes usually bend rules of ethics and procedure without comment, this time the script flaunts such lapses: Rudy shows up for his first courtroom appearance without having a license to practice law, and later he actually kills someone to help a client to whom he’s gotten too close. (Don’t worry, the victim is a bad, bad man.)

When Rudy is introduced (in voice-overs written by Michael Herr, who played a similar role in scripting Apocalypse Now), he’s fresh out of Memphis State Law School and desperate for work. So desperate, in fact, that he takes an on-commission job with sleazy ambulance-chaser Bruiser Stone (played by Mickey Rourke, who was probably also happy to get a job). Bruiser sends Rudy to turn his college law-clinic clients into paying customers, which is how the new lawyer takes the case of a woman (Mary Kay Place) whose son is dying of leukemia after her insurance company has denied a claim to pay for treatment. In his initial search for cases, Rudy also acquires a landlady (’40s Oscar winner Teresa Wright) and a divorce client who becomes his girlfriend (Claire Danes, who looks a little too upscale for the part of a battered child bride). The Damon/Danes subplot is like something out of Civil Litigation 90210.

Bruiser is but the first of Rudy’s problems to vanish conveniently. The fledgling litigator ends up suing the Great Benefit insurance company with the help of only the wily but ethically challenged Deck. Their opponents include an oily establishment attorney (Jon Voight) and the oilier president of Great Benefit (Roy Scheider), but Rudy has on his side a liberal judge (Danny Glover). And, of course, the truth, which is supposed to redeem Rudy’s inexperience, Deck’s moral casualness, and the twosome’s occasional taunts of their legal adversaries.

Leukemia and wife-beating are serious matters, but it can’t be said that these themes significantly darken the tone of the movie, which ends with a blackly ironic outcome and Rudy’s decision to give up his practice. (In one case, apparently, he’s seen it all.) Although Grisham is still enough of a lawyer to stick an anti-tort reform speech in Rudy’s mouth, the overall sense of the film is that he just doesn’t take his whole crusading-attorney shtick all that seriously any more. That makes The Rainmaker somewhat easier to swallow for those who of us who never bought it in the first place.CP