Wednesday 23 February 2022

Movie Review: Class Action (1991)

A legal drama, Class Action adds father-daughter tensions to a court room battle. The familial conflict and the pursuit of justice are both adequate, but vie for the same space.

In San Francisco, Jed Ward (Gene Hackman) is a celebrated lawyer at a small firm, known for representing victims of accidents caused by corporate negligence. His daughter Maggie (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is also a lawyer, but the opposite of her father. She is on a partner track at a soulless law firm defending large corporate interests. Maggie is also in a romantic relationship with her boss Michael Grazier (Colin Friels).

Maggie and Jed are barely on speaking terms. She blames him for emotionally abandoning the family and enjoying numerous affairs. Her mother Estelle (Joanna Merlin) suffered in silence, and the marriage survived. Now Jed and Maggie find themselves on opposite sides of the same case. He is representing burn victims claiming a defective design caused cars to explode on impact. She is defending the auto manufacturer. Estelle pleads with Maggie to turn down the case, but both father and daughter relish the opportunity to match wits in the court room.

Combining a David vs. Goliath court case with an inter-family feud guarantees drama at every turn, and director Michael Apted delivers as expected. Class Action is a proficient effort, corporate maleficence and cross-generational squabbling providing twin robust storylines to pursue. The production values are high, the visuals slick but controlled, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, without ever looking quite comfortable, does enough to avoid being mismatched by the dependable Gene Hackman.

But the script by Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames, and Samantha Shad is trying to tell two substantive stories in 105 minutes, and so predictably defaults to short cuts. On the home front, Jed's womanizing and his wife Etelle's decision to stand by her man are flash fried, leaving Maggie to simmer in rage as a perpetually angry daughter. In the courtroom, the testimony fast forwards only to the most essential witnesses, in a highlights package format devoid of build-up. And with all the event crowding in the middle, the car crash victims are marginalized and reduced to almost disrespectful sketch representations. 

The two narratives merge in Jed and Maggie's face off as representatives for the plaintiffs and defendants respectively. Class Action fleetingly pretends to walk the neutral line, before overlapping nefarious cover ups at the auto company and Maggie's law firm comprehensively tilt the balance towards Jed's cause. Here coincidences become far-fetched contrivances and a series of less than professional actions shine a bad light on several lawyers.

The talented supporting cast helps navigate the rough patches, and includes Laurence Fishburne as one of Jed's associates, Donald Moffat as the senior partner at Maggie's firm, and Matt Clark as the presiding judge.

In taking on perhaps too much drama, Class Action doesn't lose any arguments, but neither does it fully convince.

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