Even a flamboyant Jamie Foxx performance can't revive The Burial
The key to any good underdog story is for it to truly feel like the person or group taking on the big guys can’t possibly win, until they do. If you have that element, as in the recent Dumb Money, it’s hard to go wrong with the story as all of the other pieces seem to naturally fall into place.
The filmmakers behind the new Prime Video movie The Burial must have felt like they had the goods for a classic underdog tale, but they fumble the ball so often that the story never gains traction. The biggest problem is evident right off the bat, as they can’t seem to settle on the main character. Is it Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), a funeral home owner in Biloxi, Mississippi, who’s suing a large corporation for breach of contract? Or is Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a flamboyant personal injury lawyer known for getting big settlements whom Jeremiah hires to represent him?
The film starts off with Willie, but the focus shifts often so that the filmmakers can bring in multiple side characters, mostly other lawyers. Jeremiah’s longtime attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) is stuck in his ways, so Jeremiah brings on the young Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), who connects him with Willie. When the large corporation learns Willie has been hired, they bring in their own high-powered Black lawyer, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett).
Written and directed by Maggie Betts, and co-written by Doug Wright, the film has lots of personality, but not much depth. The filmmakers seem intent on including as many different people as possible, which dilutes the impact of what should have been a straightforward story. The main thrust of the story is supposed to be the small-time Jeremiah against the big corporation, but so many other things are brought in that it’s difficult to tell the overall point of the film.
The filmmakers also make some odd decisions when the film gets into the courtroom portion. Similar films tend to build to a big crescendo, but much of the questioning in court from both sides gets cut off without much resolution. There are also a variety of clunky attempts at playing on racial sympathies, with Betts seemingly using a story that has little to do with race to try to tell another one altogether. This goes back to the shifting focus; if that was the story she wanted to tell, then Gary should have been the sole main character.
(Side note: The Burial is just an awful title. It’s easy to see why they chose it, given the funeral business being heavily involved, but it doesn’t really make sense in the context of the story.)
It’s difficult to fault the performers for any of this, as each is invested in their individual characters. Foxx is a natural to play the brash Willie, as he is able to dial up or down his emotions perfectly for such a character. Jones still has a presence to him, even if this particular role doesn’t call for him to do much. Athie makes the most of a thankless role, as does Smollett; it would have been nice to see her spar with Foxx much more than they do.
The Burial, which is based on a true story that took place in the early 1990s, has a solid cast and a story that should have been a slam dunk. But Betts and her team chose to take too many detours in both characters and story, and the film as a whole suffers because of it.
The Burial is now streaming on Prime Video.