A talented actress who looks like a fashion model doesn’t necessarily have to play a bimbo, but too often she ends up being cast as The Girlfriend — a gorgeous sideshow to the hero’s dilemmas. That’s the case with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. From the moment this sensual, wavy-haired beauty made her screen debut as Tony Montana’s proud younger sister in Scarface, she seemed a sharp and appealing actress. There was a real snap to her, an avid-eyed quickness. Yet in her follow-up movies, she has had to play second fiddle to Tom Cruise and Paul Newman (The Color of Money), Kevin Kline (The January Man), and the entire ocean (The Abyss), and her appeal has been squandered, diminished. I’d just about forgotten how good she was until I saw her in the smart and engrossing new courtroom drama Class Action. The movie, which has a conventional, even hokey premise, stars Gene Hackman and Mastrantonio as Jed and Margaret Ward, father and daughter attorneys who end up arguing opposite sides of a corporate negligence suit. Jed is a noted activist lawyer from the ’60s, a kind of William Knustler-Ralph Nader composite who specializes in little-guy-against-the-system cases. Margaret is an amoral climber angling for a partnership in her superrich firm. She resents Jed for never having been around when she was growing up, and now she’s rebelling by becoming the most ruthlessly successful corporate lawyer she can. The movie is both a legal drama and the story of their reconciliation.
On paper, Class Action sounds like yet another glib contest between the idealistic ’60s and the pragmatic ’90s. The case Jed and Margaret are working on involves Argo, an auto manufacturer that may have let a dangerously faulty model on the road. Jed’s client is a wheelchair-bound man whose car, made by Argo, blew up on him; the suit claims that there was a pattern of such explosions and that the Argo executives knew about it. Margaret is defense attorney for the company. It’s easy enough to see where the case is heading, but what holds us is the texture of the legal process and the way that Hackman and Mastrantonio play off each other.
Mastrantonio, whose heart-shaped face culminates in a diamond-point chin, has a sparkling confidence and verve here. We’re meant to see that her scarily efficient single-mindedness about the law has, in its way, descended directly from her father’s leftist ardor. There’s a tension between Margaret’s ripe grin and her hyperassertive professional style. At times, she’s like Julia Roberts as a career superwoman — and with the right part, Mastrantonio, too, could become a major star. Hackman, once again, takes a no-big-deal role and brings to it a bit of magic. Jed is a great lawyer, but his dedication to his clients can’t mask the egocentric pleasure he takes in playing the Great Legal Savior. Hackman, beneath his usual crinkly-eyes warmth, paints Jed’s flaws vividly, making the character’s heroism seem all the more human.
Director Michael Apted serves up the inevitable courtroom high jinks with smooth panache. It helps that the case is believable in most of its details. Class Action gives you a sense of how ethical breaches — in both business and the law — are less a matter of evil machinations than of minutely cut corners. The movies is just melodramatic enough to get you rooting for the honesty of these two lawyers and just cynical enough to suggest that attaining justice is almost always an uphill climb.