By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Given its blahhh title, “The Burial” seems to be trying to dig its own grave.
What’s it supposed to mean? A new Stephen King adaptation? A possible horror franchise in the making?
Actually, “The Burial” is the not-so-good title of a pretty-darn-good movie starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones.
Loosely based on a true story that became a New Yorker article, the film is set in the mid 1990s. Cell phones are still some sort of new-fangled invention and racism is still, well, as old as the hills.
Actually, not the hills but as old as good ol’ boy Mississippi where white privilege and black poverty are a given. Still, as director Maggie Betts shows in her entertaining new movie, it’s not quite that simple. Oh, racism provides her picture’s context, but she also gives us an Old School barnburner of a courtroom thriller that provides Foxx and Jones with one juicy acting opportunity after another.
Jeremiah O’Keefe (Jones) is the proud but financially strapped owner of eight funeral homes. So, when the Loewen Company, a Canadian funeral conglomerate, comes calling, Jeremiah is open to doing business with the certifiably sleazy – and immensely wealthy – owner (Bill Camp). A handshake deal is made, and a contract is drawn up. But somehow, the darn thing never gets done. The more Loewen stalls, the deeper in debt Jeremiah gets.
So, he sues, and since Hinds County, where the trial will take place, is 70 percent Black, his legal team – consisting of a white establishment contract lawyer (Alan Ruck) and a young Black attorney (Mamoudou Athie) just starting out – suggests he hire Willie Gary (Foxx), a flashy ambulance chaser known for his impeccable record: 12 cases, 12 wins.
Gary is like a minor league Johnny Cochran, after whom he obviously models himself. He wears Armani suits, has his own private jet (the Wings of Justice) and is well aware of the racial implications embedded in an apparently cut-and-dried contract case. A sometime preacher, he works a jury as if it were his congregation. And he’s savvy enough to know what he’s facing when the Loewen team brings in a whip-smart, dead-gorgeous female lawyer (Jurnee Smollett). “We got out-Blacked and out-womaned in one go,” Gary mutters admiringly.
Sparks fly, racial tensions simmer and a good deal of lawyer showboating ensue, as you might expect. What you won’t expect is how expertly all this is done, with the convoluted legal mumbo-jumbo galvanized by the cast. Of course, it all ends, well, as you might expect. But Betts knows how to milk every bit of talent and charisma from her actors. Ruck (“Succession”), Athie and Smollett are spot on in their supporting roles, giving unexpected nuance and texture where lesser performers would’ve floundered.
Still, “The Burial” belongs to its Oscar-winning stars. Does anyone do Common Man decency better than Jones? Does anyone do flamboyant exuberance better than Foxx? Put them together and you’re enchanted. Well, also maybe bamboozled, but in the best possible sense.
Place “The Burial” under a microscope and it probably wouldn’t hold up all that well. Its well-intended liberalism is admittedly a bit dated. And originality isn’t its strong suit.
But jeez, it’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours in the sure hands of a pair of gifted old-timers (Foxx and Jones) and an up-and-coming newcomer (Betts) who knows how to set off David vs. Goliath fireworks.
“She don’t look as bad as I thought she’d look,” Gary comments when he first sees his adversary.
In a way, the same could be said of “The Burial.” It’s much better than it sounds.