While it’s easy to imagine lawyers screaming “objection, your honor!” to the exaggerated courtroom theatrics of “The Burial,” good luck convincing audiences that this David v. Goliath legal showdown between a small-time Southern funeral home operator and an unethical Canadian billionaire should have played out any other way. Demonstrating talents far beyond her 2017 indie debut, “The Novitiate,” director Maggie Betts has a rousing old-school crowd-pleaser on her hands with this truth-based (albeit strategically embellished) drama featuring the most entertaining performance yet from Jamie Foxx, who makes a day in court feel like going to church.
Foxx plays Willie E. Gary, a Southern Baptist personal injury lawyer who channels the spirit of evangelical preachers every time he practices law — hardly the counsel you’d expect Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), a 75-year-old business owner in Biloxi, Miss., to represent him. But then, that unlikely partnership between a charismatic Black man and an unpredictable good ol’ boy is what makes the dynamic of “The Burial” more fun than “Green Book.” And though audiences might not realize it at first, prying into the multi-billion-dollar “death care” industry at the center of this particular case reveals a lot about social hierarchies work in the U.S.
The script, which Betts co-wrote with Doug Wright from a 1999 The New Yorker article, isn’t shy about playing the race card. In fact, you could say it’s juggling a full-blown poker tournament, dealing sharp observations on race, class and gender in respectful yet entertaining ways throughout. “The Burial” opens with a re-creation of an actual episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” in which Willie shows off his Florida mansion, gorgeous wife Gloria (Amanda Warren) and private jet, which he christened “Wings of Justice.” His watch alone looks expensive enough to solve poor Jerry’s debt problems.
Jerry is a guileless family man with 13 children and eight funeral homes. Trouble is, he got suckered into a scam, investing money that regulators require him to have on hand for his burial insurance business, and now the government’s threatening to shut him down. That’s the only reason he instructs his longtime lawyer, Mike Allred (Alan Ruck, who gives a great love-to-hate performance), to pursue a deal with Ray Loewen (Bill Camp, equally loathsome), a callous Canadian investor who’s been buying out independently owned funeral homes all over the country. Ray’s plan: “to put myself in position of what I call ‘the golden era of death.’”
Most Americans don’t think about the high cost of burial or cremation until they actually lose a loved one, and yet, here’s a subject that’s destined to affect everyone sooner or later. Over the course of the case, it becomes clear that Ray’s conglomerate was gobbling up funeral homes in low-income areas and marking up prices on basic caskets in a way that directly impacted people of color. Early on, at the encouragement of junior counsel Hal (Mamoudou Athie), Jerry flies to Florida to watch Willie in action.
That monologue ranks as one of the film’s great scenes, as Foxx gives a fiery closing statement whose punchline is the $75 million price tag he’s seeking in damages — although my personal favorite comes later, when Willie has drinks with opposite counsel, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett). I’d put the delicate power struggle dramatized there on par with the tête-à-tête between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat.” Early on, Jerry must convince Willie and a team of well-dressed Black lawyers to take the job. Later, once Mame embarrasses him in court, Willie’s the one who finds himself bargaining not to be kicked off the case entirely.
Unlike “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Matlock” (to name two Southern-fried legal dramas), the fate of this case does not rest in white people’s hands. Since the lawsuit was filed in Hinds County, which is two-thirds Black, both sides hire African American lawyers. Allred turns out to be a liability (for reasons one can guess by the way he addresses non-white characters as “son”), whereas Willie and Hal play to their audience — the judge (Lance E. Nichols) and eight of the jurors are Black, and all identify as Christian.
Meanwhile, Ray’s savvy enough to see what’s happening, which is why he hires Mame, who once clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, and carries herself like a young Pam Grier. She’s a fictional character (of Betts’ invention) who brings a compelling gender dimension to an otherwise dude-heavy film. Where Mame is sophisticated, Willie is a glorified ambulance chaser with tacky nouveau riche taste, and though he makes a big deal in court of Ray’s boat (implying that Loewen is rich enough to afford multi-million-dollar damages), the fact they both have private planes suggests a certain level of hypocrisy on his part. The character who comes off looking like a hero here is Jerry, a model antiracist who seems bemused by Willie’s flamboyance.
Jones and Foxx are performers with polar-opposite energy levels, and yet, they mesh beautifully on screen. That just goes to show how far Betts has come since her debut, in which Melissa Leo (playing an unhinged mother superior) ran away with the show. Here, although Foxx gives a larger-than-life performance, Betts does a much better job of integrating his supernova energy into the overall ensemble. At times, she directs Foxx to dial it way down in order to let Jones be subtle, as in the meeting where both sides discuss a settlement, passing a scrap of paper with a very large (likely eight-figure) number scribbled on it back and forth. Betts doesn’t show the sum, but lets it play out on her characters’ faces.
While up-to-the-minute in its politics, “The Burial” feels like a throwback to Sidney Lumet-style courtroom dramas from an earlier decade — the kind where judges banged gavels and shouted, “Order in the court!” It’s hard to imagine the magistrate letting either Willie or Mame get away with preaching the way they do in his courtroom, but Betts orchestrates it in such a way that, even more than with “The Novitiate,” you want to clap your hands and shout “Amen!”
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