Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
“Just Mercy” is the kind of film that makes me wish I spent less time in theaters and saw fewer films. Not because it’s bad, quite the opposite – because it’s good – but it’s also very familiar. It’s the kind of film that makes you wish you hadn’t already seen so many other good (or bad) films about injustice in the legal system, especially towards people of color, and racism in the Deep South.
If you have older children and teens showing an interest in social justice topics, who perhaps haven’t seen so many similar movies, take them to this one because it’s a compelling story, well told, and well acted. It tells the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) wrongly sentenced to death for murder, whose conviction was challenged by Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as part of a program of legal assistance for those who otherwise had little hope of quality representation.
One of the ironies of the story, referenced in the film repeatedly, is that it takes place in Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee lived and based her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But for all of the pride expressed by the locals who point this fact out to Stevenson when he arrives in town, they appear pleased by their peripheral association with the book but apparently quite ignorant of its content and message.
As suggested, for anybody who has seen films like this before, there are very few surprises from a narrative perspective, although the sheer willfulness and extent of the racist prosecution in this case is as shocking and horrifying as any. As Stevenson discovers, McMillian wasn’t the kind of defendant who had the misfortune of lacking an alibi, he was a man whose entire extended family was with him miles from where the murder took place – and his very recognizable truck which he supposedly used during the commission of the murder was dismantled on a lift at the time. None of which came to light in a trial of convenience for a community that wanted a scapegoat more than an explanation.
Foxx and Jordan are both strong, as are Brie Larson as a local woman assisting in the legal aid program and especially Tim Blake Nelson as a coerced witness – both also based on real people. “Just Mercy” is a good film likely to get overlooked among showier company in crowded multiplexes.
The other two films opening in wide release this week are both quite odd, most especially in relation to their abbreviated running times. Played back to back, “Like a Boss” and “Underwater” would still be shorter than “Avengers: Endgame.” And you could take a mandated lunch break between them and still spend less time than watching “The Irishman.”
At a mere 83 minutes, the distinctly adult-themed “Like a Boss” clocks in shorter than most children’s movies. That’s 9 minutes less, for example, than “Trolls” which had a very young target audience. And the plot probably isn’t much more complicated, with Rose Byrne (Mel) and Tiffany Haddish (Mia) co-starring as long-time friends who founded and managed a small cosmetics company (Mel&Mia) that’s targeted for takeover by cosmetics-magnate Claire Luna (played in over the top cinema villain style by Salma Hayek).
It’s raunchy and really quite funny in brief moments and starts with a funny sequence in which Mia describes a sex dream (apparently a recurring dream) she had had which featured Barack Obama. As it happens, at the press screening, we got to listen and/or watch this opening scene three times and it was a relief that it was as funny as it was given the projector problems and the related repetition. Another especially funny scene involves Billy Porter as one of their only two employees (neatly cast alongside Jennifer Coolidge) who is unfairly fired and insists on staging the most dramatic, wronged walkout from a small restaurant upon hearing the news.
But for the most part otherwise, it’s just brief and insubstantial, and it fails to maintain any kind of internal logic. Mel and Mia are supposedly very savvy and creative respectively, and they’ve maintained their business for 20 years, and yet they seem incapable of realizing that they’re totally being played by Claire – despite how painfully obvious it all is. It’s structured and plays out like a bad romantic comedy in which the two main characters spend half the film at odds with each other, based on some manufactured or misinterpreted plot detail, despite clearly being madly in love with each other. You’re not sure if you want them to win or if they really deserve to fail.
“Underwater” just beats “Like a Boss” (and “Trolls”) for length at 95 minutes, but it still suffers enormously from its brevity. Kristin Stewart stars as an engineer in a deep sea drilling station which suffers an unknown structural failure just a few minutes into the film. The problem being that by jumping straight into the action, we know very little about the place and even less about the characters. This isn’t helped by an opening sequence that actually causes you to think that the rapid structural collapse is all part of a dream (at least it came across that way to me and also to the only other person I spoke to after the screening).
So you sit there waiting for Stewart’s character to wake up and by the time you realize she isn’t going to, and that the action is actually happening, you’ve already seen people you neither knew nor cared about get crushed in a collapsed walkway. And it keeps going like that, as she passes other dead bodies that she may or may not recognize any better than we do.
After that, as a small group of survivors emerges, intent on escaping the platform, it devolves into little more than a guessing game about the sequencing of character deaths – although to its credit, it kept me guessing and fooled me a couple of times. At least it did after predictably killing off the one person of color first.
Stylistically, it’s trying to call back to “Alien” with a hint of deepwater “Gravity,” largely failing on both counts. And it’s only a marketing/licensing pitch away from being ‘marine Cloverfield’ and it might have been better served up on a streaming service like the last of those films. Probably the single best aspect of the film is Kristin Stewart’s hairstyle, and I’d love to congratulate the stylist who cropped it so short but left just a little length at the sideburns. But the fact that such details are as memorable as they were is because the film, at the larger scale, isn’t. As with several other creature features, there’s a point at which you obscure the threat so much that it just doesn’t stick with you all that well.