The Burial has all the ingredients for an Oscar-worthy film: it stars two legendary Academy Award winners in Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, it’s a courtroom drama that delves into themes of race and injustice, it’s directed by a promising up-and-coming director in Maggie Betts, and it’s based on a true story. Sounds like a winning formula, doesn’t it?
Set in 1995, the film is based on a true-life court case in which insolvent funeral house owner Jerry O’Keefe (Jones) attempted to sue Loewen Group, a much bigger funeral home firm, over a contract disagreement. O’Keefe is directed to the flamboyant personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary (Foxx) after learning that he would stand trial in a predominantly black courtroom.
Of course, the court battle isn’t going to be simple, especially because the Loewen Group has brought in their own black lawyer, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), who clearly isn’t going down without a fight and is eager to go deep into some of the discriminatory individuals with whom O’Keefe is linked. It’s a classic underdog story that’s sure to please audiences, but given that Amazon Studios has been trying to get the film off the ground for the past five years, with Alexander Payne originally attached to direct, it’s understandable why it’s taken so long.
The Burial is a film that seeks to delve deeply into real-world concerns, particularly those involving a system that is perpetually skewed against the impoverished. It’s a tough subject for any film to handle, and although it wouldn’t be surprising for a director like Adam McKay to address the greediness of big business screwing over families trying to bury their loved ones, The Burial never feels like a joke. Instead, most of the humour feels lifted straight from a Kevin Hart film. Betts and playwright Doug Wright co-wrote the script, which is a Frankenstein’s monster with two wildly distinct tones.
A character discusses how Confederate monuments are being built over the bodies of dead slaves, only to shift about 10 minutes later to see Jones’ O’Keefe laughing with his wife (Pamela Reed) while attempting to negotiate with Loewen CEO Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp). If The Burial had been directed by someone like Payne or McKay, the picture would have turned out quite differently, for better or worse.
That’s not to suggest that a film like The Burial can’t be lighthearted; in fact, there are some real chuckles peppered throughout the picture. At the same time, you get the distinct impression that this was written by two very different screenwriters. It also doesn’t help that, while being a real tale, it feels like it’s continuously attempting to surprise its viewers with key discoveries about the trial’s conclusion, despite everything feeling so aggressively obvious from the start.
Betts’ enthusiasm for narrating the narrative of The Burial is palpable. Even though the picture is a disaster, it is immensely entertaining. After all, it’s a crowd-pleaser that wants its audience to grin and nod while feeling good about themselves, while title cards depict what happened to the real-life characters in the film. It’s as unoffensive and safe as a courtroom drama can get, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not anything that will set the film apart from the hundreds of others like it. While this may have won Oscars left and right 25 years ago, it feels like one of those films that your family at the Thanksgiving table would recommend to you, only for you to entirely forget about it being mentioned minutes later.
Jamie Foxx plays the role of Willie Gary in The BurialImage courtesy of Amazon Studios
Foxx is without a doubt one of the most gifted performers working in Hollywood today; he’s collaborated with respected filmmakers like as Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Sam Mendes, and Edgar Wright, and he’s proven himself capable of acting in almost every kind of film.
The part of Willie E. Gary appears to be a perfect fit for Foxx, and one that, on paper, may put him in the running for an Oscar. Foxx impresses in every scene in which he appears. He’s able to perfect both his humorous and tragic abilities, providing a performance that reminds us why he’s such a one-of-a-kind actor. As confused as the picture is, Foxx’s performance never suffers.
Smollett is also a standout as Mame Downs, and the film takes pains not to portray her as a sleazy corporate lawyer, but rather as someone who has been dragged into a position she knows is wrong but refuses to give up without a fight. She comes dangerously near to outshining Foxx’s magnetism in her most critical passages.
On the other hand, while Jones isn’t portraying the same gloomy and pessimistic old man that he’s been typecast as since The Fugitive, he never comes close to matching the kind of hyper-charming energy that the rest of his cast can muster. Jones is one of the rare performers who, even while phoning it in, is nearly unable of delivering a horrible performance, as is the case with his work in The Burial.
Recent courtroom dramas, such as Anatomy of a Murder and Just Mercy (both starring Foxx), have been able to broaden the genre in ways that have allowed them to venture into uncharted ground. In comparison, The Burial appears to be the same type of film that has been done to death since courtroom dramas became popular.
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