Likely the most rousing crowdpleaser ever made about the legal battle for a burial insurance business, Maggie Betts’ “The Burial” is the kind of fun but impassioned courtroom drama Hollywood used to release on a regular basis — before the film industry was so preoccupied with dying that it couldn’t afford to think about what it was leaving behind. Set in 1995, and shot with enough wit and confidence to sell the illusion that it was made around the same time, Betts’ unexpected follow-up to the severe nun saga “Novitiate” relishes in the simple pleasures of its own nostalgia from almost the moment it starts.
And yet the movie proves to have a more complicated relationship with that nostalgia than it initially appears. For one, Betts’ rousing crowdpleaser — which absolutely slayed the 2,000-person audience at its TIFF premiere — will only be able to please crowds for a single week before Amazon Studios puts it out to pasture on Prime Video for all eternity (or until it’s obliviated as a tax write-off).
For another, more immediately relevant point: This true-enough story about the friendship that develops between a soggy white Mississippi funeral director and the hotshot Black attorney he hires to defend him from out of state might be steeped in some of the same tropes that made the likes of “Green Book” feel so forced, but “The Burial” gradually reveals itself to be more in touch with the past than the rest of its ilk, and therefore also more reflective of the present. Rather than trying to pretend as if Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx bonding over Tony! Toni! Toné! might be the magic bullet we need to solve racism forever, Betts’ film leverages its warm and fuzzy legalese into a (fun, entertainment-forward) story about the depth to which racism is entrenched in the soil of American life.
On the surface, it starts with the most charismatic and high-energy performance of Foxx’s career, as the “Collateral” actor brings his swaggy best to the real-life role of Willie E. Gary, a Florida personal injury attorney who practices law with the same Baptist theatricality he brings to the pulpit of his church on Sundays. Born the son of a sharecropper but already one of the richest lawyers in the world by the time our story begins, this indomitable ambulance-chaser has minted his American Dream on the strength of flash and faith alone. His flash is easy: The guy owns a private jet named “Wings of Justice,” he wears a different $10,000 suit in every scene, and all of them — even the blue ones — look sort of like money. His faith is a bit more complicated. Gary believes in God, and he believes in the law, but mostly he believes in only taking cases that he can win (which tend to be cases in which he can preach his form of justice to a majority Black jury).
Biloxi funeral homeowner and World War II veteran Jeremiah O’Keefe would seem to be a very different kind of man. Style isn’t exactly one of his strengths (he’s always dressed for, well… you know). Tommy Lee Jones plays him with all the enthusiasm the actor might display if you asked him to be in your TikTok, and his strongest tie to the Black community is the fact that he’s never kept a white hood in his closet. It’s not that O’Keefe is an outspoken anti-racist or anything; he just refuses to sanction that kind of tomfoolery.
But his faith is complicated, too. He’s a religious man, and despite what his experiences at home and abroad have taught him about the awful things God’s children are capable of doing to each other, he believes that a better tomorrow is possible for those willing to fight for it — for all those willing to fight for it. And while the over-leveraged O’Keefe might be looking to sell a portion of the family business he inherited from his father, he sure as shit isn’t going to let deathcare mogul Ray Loewen (Bill Camp, at his Bill Campiest) screw his kids out of sharing that legacy. Loewen makes a handshake deal with O’Keefe for a portion of his business, but the giddy tycoon, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the forthcoming Boomer die-off he dubs “the golden age of death,” refuses to sign the contract. Why pay a premium for a few pieces of the pie when he can wait the poor guy out, suck him dry, and then buy his entire business for pennies on the dollar? That’s the American way.
O’Keefe disagrees. He lawyers up, assembling a team that includes his long-time attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck, eating it up as a snivelingly entitled son of the South), and — much to Mike’s surprise and confusion — a bright-eyed young Black associate named Hal (Mamoudou Athie, subtly anchoring the entire movie). When Hal catches sight of Gary flaunting his wealth on an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” he gets the idea that hiring the country’s most electric Black attorney to try a case in a majority Black county might be enough for David to slay Goliath. It’s true that Willie Gary is a personal injury lawyer who’s never worked a contract suit in his life, but he might bring some real sizzle to a case that Gary’s partner describes as “a nap waiting to happen.” He only agrees to sign on in a transparent bid for respectability; anything that might get him closer to his dream of wiping the floor with Johnnie Cochran.
And so, after an enormous amount of set-up that Betts and co-writer Doug Wright establish far more elegantly than I’ve done here, the stage is set for a Mississippi courtroom movie that seems to be less compelling for the stakes of the trial at hand than for the people litigating it. Unfolding through a series of outlandish scenes that lack the detail and momentum you might find in a more hard-nosed legal drama, the trial itself occasionally struggles with that imbalance; an imbalance personified by the superstar lawyer Loewen retains in response to Gary’s hiring.
Jurnee Smollett plays the fictional Mame Downes with poise and porous grace, but her character — a beautiful, hyper-capable young Black woman who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor and seems destined for the Supreme Court herself one day — is a strange foil for Gary. She has to be flirtatious, but she can’t be romantic. She has to be antagonistic, but she can’t be a villain. She has to defend one of the most vile white men alive, but she can’t ever really take his side. A different kind of film might have done more to explore how that degree of self-conflict is endemic in Mame’s experience of rising through a legal system determined to keep people like her down. But “The Burial” doesn’t have the time required to thread that needle, and so Smollett’s character feels like a missed opportunity for more drama.
The good news is that Betts seems fully aware of her film’s strengths, and she isn’t afraid to play to them. Moreover, Foxx is capable of carrying a one-man show, and Gary doesn’t need an opponent as much as he needs a supporting cast. The lopsided pissing contest between him and Allred over who gets to be O’Keefe’s lead attorney is funny as hell, and it latently allows “The Burial” to grapple with the larger role that race might play in a courtroom drama where the litigant and defendant are both white, and the judge, jury, and trial lawyers are all Black (the hilarious scene where Ruck tells his majority-Black legal team that he’s “working on” not dehumanizing them is the stuff of “Succession”-worthy cringe).
Meanwhile, the bond that develops between Gary and O’Keefe is never so broad as to feel inauthentic. It helps that they like each other from the start and that, despite their different backgrounds, they share a mutual belief in the importance of legacy. O’Keefe’s conviction in leaving something behind for his children is so unshakeable that it frees Jones to have a little fun with the role. Sure, the bags under his eyes are so big that he probably has to check them when he flies, but there’s a looseness to his performance here, and Foxx’s energy seems to lure a sincere amount of fun out of his co-star. Gary’s involvement in the case may initially seem motivated by self-interest alone. But his lack of experience with contract law proves humbling at the same time as the discovery phase of the trial — which reveals the horrifying impact that Loewen’s predatory business practices have had on America’s Black community — proves this case to be so much bigger than him.
“The Burial” handles that pivot with all the aplomb of an expert truck driver pulling off a three-point turn in an alleyway: as elegantly as possible, despite a few inevitable bumps along the way. There’s no avoiding how the film loses speed as it switches gears, but Betts does a phenomenal job of ensuring that both the trial and the historical truths it eventually digs up feel like two lanes on the same road, which is imperative to a story about the role that racism can still play in a fight between Bill Camp and Tommy Lee Jones.
While the outcome of the trial might seem like a foregone conclusion, the process by which the second half of this movie conflates the way America treats its living with the way it remembers its dead is as poignant as the Jonathan Harr New Yorker Article on which “The Burial” is based. Betts’ adaptation never loses its sense of humor, and the multiplex flair it brings to such a sensitive subject — its wry, politically inclusive approach to illustrating how burying America’s heartache without a headstone only guarantees that the pain will continue — allows for a verdict that feels damning and hopeful in equal measure.
“The Burial” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in select theaters on Friday, October 6, and it will be available to stream on Prime Video starting Friday, October 13.