The pairing of Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones is the kind of star-powered duo fronting a feel-good courtroom straight out of the ’90s. Somehow, we never got the pleasure of seeing them do that during the appropriate era. Better late than never, because Foxx and Jones are quite a lot of fun in Maggie Betts’ crowd-pleasing legal dramedy The Burial.
Based on a New Yorker article on a true David & Goliath story, The Burial stars Jones as Jeremiah O’ Keefe, and war hero and now Mississippi funeral home owner whose mounting debts have him seeking a way out. Jeremiah hopes to keep the business going as something to leave behind to his 13 kids, while his wife (the welcome presence of Pamela Reed, another ’90s favorite) is more concerned about present difficulties. Turning to his longtime attorney friend (a slimy Alan Ruck), Jeremiah is persuaded to strike a deal with the Loewen Group, a large funeral home company, that will solve many of his problems. However, Jeremiah gets screwed by the bullying conglomerate, and with the aid of Hal (Mamoudou Athie) a hopeful upstart attorney, he’s convinced to hire Willie E. Gary (Foxx), a grandiose personal injury attorney so rich and famous he’s been profiled by Robin Leach. Willie initially refuses; the financial stakes are far too small for a guy like him. But when he realizes what a win like this can do for his professional profile, elevating him to Johnnie Cochran levels, Willie jumps at the chance.
It would be easy to dislike Willie, who is playing all of the angles here, including the race card, if it weren’t for a rousing opening scene. Commanding the courtroom like P.T. Barnum commands a three-ring circus, Willie expertly sways us, and the jurors, in favor of a problematic client against a cold, unfeeling, and ultra-wealthy corporation. This story becomes more about Willie’s evolution as he realizes the magnitude of the deathcare industry’s manipulations of the market, its abuses family-owned businesses, and its poor treatment of clients of color. Pretty soon, this becomes less about Jeremiah’s personal grievance and more about taking down an entire corrupt industry.
Writer/director Betts is an unexpected choice for a film like this in the approach that is taken. Her previous film, the clergy drama Novitiate, might’ve suggested a more dramatic, straight-minded adaptation of events. But The Burial is not that, taking on the aesthetics of the era including ’90s specific tunes (such as En Voge, Gang Starr) and broad comedy that clash with the sobering material. It too often feels as if the film isn’t taking itself very seriously, which undercuts some of the quiet moments when Jeremiah is forced to grapple with the potential consequences of failure. There are other avenues one wishes could’ve been fleshed out even further. Jurnee Smollett stars as Mame Downes, Willie’s confident, capable opponent. There’s a nice throughline where these people of color acknowledge that they are both living versions of the American Dream, but as a Black woman who is constantly underestimated, including by Black men such as Willie, Mame’s story is intriguing enough to wish it received more time.
Betts and co-writer Doug Wright keep the legal mumbo-jumbo, if which there is plenty, as upbeat and minimal as possible. But there are still stretches where the film can’t help but slow down until Foxx charges things back up again. The Burial doesn’t always make the perfect case for itself, but it’s hard not to like an underdog story with an anti-corporate message delivered with the kind of gusto that Foxx brings to the table.
The Burial is in select theaters now and will stream on Prime Video on October 13th.