The most interesting detail about “The Firm” comes from examining the differences between The Firm and “The Firm.” Respectively, that’s the new NBC drama based on the 1993 Sydney Pollack film based on the 1991 novel by John Grisham. Because for the film, starring Tom Cruise, the motives of the protagonist, attorney Mitch McDeere, were changed, as well as the ending. Those changes mark the difference between what could have been a compelling manhunt drama into one that is one part courtroom procedural, one part family blahness and only a dose of intriguing lawyery evilness.
Bear with me: In the film, instead of fleeing with his wife, Abby, to the Caribbean with $10 million he swindled from his mob-controlled Memphis law firm, as well as $1 million from the FBI, with which he collaborated to bring the firm down, Mitch and Abby head back to Boston in their beat-up car, hoping to start over again. In the novel, Mitch takes what he can get, knowing he won’t practice law again. In the movie, he’s given more “integrity,” keeping his nose clean and taking nothing with the hope of still practicing law. Creators Grisham and Lukas Reiter have kept those movie motives and ending for TV, moving the drama up 10 years and expecting viewers to be OK with Josh Lucas subbing for Cruise. And that integrity? It’s really stupidity. Added flashbacks detail how the Moroltos, the mob family that used the firm as a front, put a hit out on Mitch and ended up killing a U.S. Marshal. Mitch, however, refuses to go into the Federal Witness Protection program — that is, until he learns Abby is pregnant. In they go, but out they come again 10 years later on the knowledge that Joey Morolto, head of the family, died in prison, where Mitch put him. Mitch ignores the pleas from a Marshal telling him to go back into hiding because 25-year-old Joey Morolto Jr. just took Dad’s place in charge. He refuses again, not believing Junior will take revenge (has he not seen The Godfather?) and wanting to live in the open and run his own firm in the most innocuous place he can find, Washington, D.C.
But as “The Firm’s” pilot opens, Mitch again is running for his life, this time dodging tourists at the Lincoln Memorial and calling Abby from a pay phone to tell her “it’s happening again.” We’re then taken back six weeks, which is still 10 years after the Memphis events, to see just how Mitch ended up in this mess. Not to mention wonder how he could have forgotten this:
That’s you, Mitch, albeit with more charisma and stunt abilities. And the notion that you’d so easily end up in that situation again is what viewers are expected to swallow.
Lucas is surprisingly dull as the lead, having shown more personality in the likes of Sweet Home Alabama than he does here. Likewise, as Abby, Molly Parker is sweet enough but lacks the spark she maintained during her “Deadwood” days, cinched into a corset and sipping laudanum. They’re a happy couple with a 10-year-old daughter, Claire (Natasha Calis), who seems the most altered from the family’s time in hiding. She longs for a permanent home and group of friends, and her doe-eyed pleas for normality are what inspire Mitch and Abby to settle down in the District. Mitch is struggling to keep his one-man firm afloat, barely affording his office space, assistant, Tammy (Juliette Lewis), and private detective, his brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie). Lewis channels Erin Brockovich, sporting black bras under see-through shirts, while Rennie plays a softer yet still formerly incarcerated version of his former Cylon self. As a couple, they’re far more interesting than the McDeeres. As actors, all four adults aren’t playing to their strengths.
Mitch’s good nature keeps him from turning down defense clients who can’t pay, and much of the pilot is devoted to one schoolyard stabbing case that may be a red herring to him, or to the viewers, or to both. It distracts him from another murder case, involving a young woman accused of killing an elderly one. He’s also focused on receiving a settlement for a case involving a client’s faulty heart stent, one he’s sure will bring a big paycheck to the firm, but the makers of said stent decide to go to trial. Mitch’s ramshackle team can’t handle such a huge tort case, so thank goodness a friend of his has been courting him to join a bigger firm, led by Alex Cross (Tricia Helfer, also missing her Cylon cool). Mitch makes an association deal with Alex, in which he can use the firm’s resources for his cases, but she gets oversight and compensation. He assumes the firm wants a piece of his heart stint tort case, but he’s wrong. In a secret meeting with other partners, Alex discusses the for-now overlooked murder case of the elderly woman and how they need complete control over it. This is the case that somehow sends Mitch running for his life six weeks later and, after calling Abby, meeting a witness in a hotel room. The chasers catch up to him, though, and that witness leaps to his death as Mitch faces who knows what. It could be he’s being chased in relation to the case, or perhaps it’s the mob after him as well. Junior indeed is in the game — we see him in Chicago examining photos of Mitch around D.C. as another mob man discusses him needing to avenge his father.
And we’re back to where we started 10 years ago. Touring the new firm this time around, Mitch and Abby aren’t taken in by the swanky office and promise of riches as they were in Memphis. Yet they still gamble everything at the chance for bigger cases, more money and more recognition. (Mitch grumbles more than once about how he graduated the top of his class at Harvard Law and should be doing better than he is. Freaking get over it already.) “The Firm” is OK enough, but its biggest problem is asking viewers to care for characters who haven’t evolved in the 10 years since their last life-altering drama went down. They make the same careless and naive mistakes, now with a 10-year-old in danger as well. The show seems equally unsure of what it wants to be and where it should go. By following additional cases Mitch handles, it’s nothing more than one more damn lawyer show. By repeating the plot of an evil firm, it’s The Firm: Part 2. What it certainly isn’t is what it should be: a drama about the McDeeres, discovered by the mob operating, say, a seafood restaurant in the Caribbean, now on the run. Too bad both Mitch and “The Firm” lack that sort of gumption. Because if the mob is after you and you don’t change your identity Andy Dufresne-style, steal money and hit the road, then you deserve what’s coming to you.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama. She can’t remember when she watched the film version of “The Firm” — years ago on TV — but it still is more memorable than this. She suggests the casting of Wilford Brimley.