A dynamic acting duo excel in the courtroom.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Whenever a crowd pleasing movie hits theaters or streaming, people lament, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Often, these people refer to middle-of-the-road movies from the 80s and 90s, the type of film that would play on cable television in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, something that people watch over and over again, simply because it makes them feel lighter. The Burial, the new courtroom drama from writer/director Maggie Betts, falls firmly into this category. It’s dad-fare, set in 1995 when it also likely would’ve had mainstream success in popular culture.
Betts’ film, based on the facts of a New Yorker article, follows the unlikely companionship of hotshot lawyer Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx) and funeral home owner Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones). After O’Keefe runs into some financial constraints and agrees to a shady deal with Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp) of the Loewen Group, he ends up suing the company and hoping to win a big settlement. Enter Gary, a rich personal injury lawyer who, seemingly, hasn’t lost a case in 12 years. The two bond and stretch over the course of the trial, in which only one decision can really be made. That’s the beauty of The Burial: the telegraphed ending doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the ride.
Foxx and Jones make for a rousing pair, with the former giving a boisterous performance, a balancing act of big speeches and more tender moments, with a layer of insecurity rippling below his persona. It’s Foxx’s second tremendous performance this year, alongside his role in They Cloned Tyrone, and in a different, past world, his awards campaign might be off and running. Jones opts to be more understated, representing the shakiness of an aged man trying to metaphorically and physically limp towards keeping together a family business. All of their scenes together hum, and the two create the ideal mixture of comedy and drama.
Betts’ screenplay, written with the seasoned Doug Wright, moves with a swiftness needed in this story. The writers don’t waste too much time in exposition, allowing the trial to provide for all of the information given to audiences. The trial subsumes the majority of the film, and for good reason.
It gives the rest of The Burial’s supporting cast more moments to shine, with Jurnee Smollett, playing the opposing counsel, and Alan Ruck, as O’Keefe’s longtime lawyer, standing out among the rest. Even Mamoudou Athie gets a meatier role, one the actor rightfully deserves. It should give directors another reason to cast Athie in future, larger roles. If the script wanes in certain points, it’s no matter, for the cast continually picks up the slack. Every actor seems to have bought into this story and into Betts’ direction. The interplay between them makes for pure entertainment.
Essentially, the film makes audiences feel good. I finished The Burial with a warm, fuzzy feeling and a smile on my face that only grew wider after Googling the real-life story. Foxx has that ability with his performance to shift one’s day into something better. It should be rewatched, played on cable on an endless loop, instead of being dumped on a streaming service for people to seek it out.
Betts does more than enough behind the camera and with her script to show an ability to craft something charming, engaging, and enjoyable. Her next film immediately becomes something to watch. The Burial doesn’t need directorial flash to succeed, though, only two great performances from two great actors, still able to pull drama and exude charisma decades into their careers.
The Burial is now streaming on Amazon Prime.