The Burial Review: Jamie Foxx And Tommy Lee Jones Lead Rousing David Vs. Goliath Deep South Legal Story Toronto Film Festival

The Burial is a not-so-great title; it sounds like a horror film. I hope it doesn’t keep people away from this highly entertaining, crowd-pleasing movie that otherwise is an example of what good old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking can still be all about in the right hands. It feels bigger than life, but it is based on some pretty big lives indeed.

This lively courtroom true story has taken awhile to get to its closeup. Inspired by a November 1999 New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, The Burial, which provides choice lead roles for Oscar winners Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx, has taken a long circuitous route to production. Directors like Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard were in and out along the way until it finally wound up in the hands of Maggie Betts, best known for 2017’s wildly different religious drama Novitiate.

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With an initial draft script by Tony and Pulitzer winner Doug Wright, she joined as co-writer and director, clearly finding just the right tone, veering from comic at points to a emotionally satisfying David vs Goliath Deep South tale that speaks directly to faith, our common connections, and a belief in doing the right thing no matter what the risk might be.

The Amazon/MGM Studios production had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival tonight and its story is so engaging and inspiring it could be a sleeper, even if it will only initially get an exclusive one-week theatrical before hitting streaming on Prime Video on October 13. Like the streamer’s Air, which was given much more of a theatrical play, this is a word-of-mouth kind of movie I am betting audiences may embrace more than critics. The success of a movie like the audience-pleasing Green Book (a TIFF People’s Choice winner before eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar) may have paved the way for this one’s green light.

Jones, the best thing about another TIFF debut this week called Finestkind, is Jeremiah O’Keefe, the 75-year-old patriarch of a proud Mississippi family whose 100-year-old funeral home and burial insurance business is undergoing financial troubles. Trying to preserve the company for his grandkids, he agrees to sell three of his eight funeral homes to a conglomerate called the Loewen Group run by shady Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). A trip to Florida and a handshake deal on Loewen’s yacht becomes fishy, and O’Keefe decides to sue.

At the urging of his longtime lawyer’s young Black associate Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), O’Keefe is convinced to meet with a very wealthy and infamous hotshot personal injury attorney Willie E. Gary (Foxx), whose success and lavish surroundings has even led to an appearance on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. After first rejecting the idea of a contract law case he has never before done, Dockins convinces Gary to join their legal team. In no time, Gary and his associates have taken the lead position; demanded $100 million against Loewen, seemingly an outrageous sum; and shuffled O’Keefe’s Southern attorney (Alan Ruck) into the background. Loewen decides to play hardball and enlists a young Ivy League attorney Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to represent him, and the a legal game of cat and mouse is on as the two sides point to a trial that careens into a wild roller-coaster ride of twists and turns, with Gary and Downes going head to head.

You can absolutely see what attracted this stellar cast to these roles which, although inspired by the actual events, are almost bigger than life and vividly written by Wright and Betts, who turns it all into a glossy and fun legal eagle contest to watch. Foxx has one of his juiciest roles in years, bejeweled and blissfully over the top as Gary, but also a man who despite crazy success has finally met his own moment of truth. Jones is the definition of dignity bringing a career’s worth of credibility to O’Keefe, who has a couple of flaws of his own but is rising to the occasion. Smollett seems to relish playing the A-list attorney who seemingly cannot lose a case, while Camp really knows how to play a guy you love to hate. Also of note in the cast are briefer moments from Pamela Reed as O’Keefe’s supportive wife Annette and Amanda Warren as Gary’s wife Gloria. Succession co-star Ruck plays the beleaguered longtime attorney for O’Keefe whose family associations pose some problems. Athie, an actor always worth watching, is excellent again.

You might imagine with a movie that has taken this long to get made that there are a lot of producers involved. Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Foxx and his partner Datari Turner, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman, and Bobby Shriver share the producer credit.

It may have taken 24 years since that New Yorker article first brought this case to light, but for audiences looking for some sheer entertainment, it is worth the wait.

Title: The Burial
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Amazon/MGM Studios
Release date: October 6, 2023 (limited theatrical); October 13, 2023 streaming (Prime Video)
Director: Maggie Betts
Screenwriter: Doug Wright (also story by) and Maggie Betts
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Jamie Foxx, Jurnee Smollett, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, Alan Ruck, Amanda Warren
Rating: R
Running rime: 2 hr 6 min

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