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‘The Burial’ Review: Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones in a Satisfyingly Old-School Courtroom Drama

The Burial tells the story of funeral home owner and former politician Jerry O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) and his case against the Loewen Group, spearheaded by flashy personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx). The film, based on a real case in Hinds County, Mississippi, in 1995, is the sophomore narrative feature from Maggie Betts, with a screenplay by Doug Wright and Jonathan Harr. 

O’Keefe is the father of 13 children with 22 grandchildren and a mountain of debt he’s been hiding from everyone, including his wife (Pamela Reed). And at his age, his focus is on securing his legacy to make sure his large family is taken care of after he’s gone. Though he owns multiple funeral homes, debt has forced him to sell. His attorney and friend Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) sets up a meeting with Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp), the billionaire owner of the Loewen Group, who seeks to grow his massively successful death and burial insurance business. They draw up a contract and O’Keefe signs, but Loewen doesn’t. 

The Burial

The Bottom Line A lively ’90s throwback.

Venue: Toronto International FIlm Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Bill Camp, Mamoudou Athie, Amanda Warren
Director: Maggie Betts
Writers: Doug Wright, Jonathan Harr
2 hours 4 minutes

When O’Keefe realizes Loewen has no intention of closing the deal, he recruits young lawyer Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) to help him take the billionaire to court. Once they realize they’re likely to get a Black judge and majority Black jury, Dockins takes O’Keefe to meet Willie E. Gary, a rich lawyer with a private plane and a 12-year winning streak in court. Coming from a large, poor Southern family, Gary immediately bonds with O’Keefe, who becomes the lawyer’s very first white client.

The case quickly becomes about more than the death industry, meditating on class inequality and the massive expense of burying loved ones. Though Gary is rich and O’Keefe more well-off than most in his hometown, Loewen is a billionaire with more power and capital than both of them. This bolsters the bond between the men, as their class solidarity strengthens their resolve to take Loewen down and expose his shady business practices.

Race is a large part of The Burial, with countless references to the O.J. Simpson trial and especially the defense tactics of Johnnie Cochran, whom Gary looks up to. But in a broader sense, the film is keenly aware of not only race but how it can be perceived in court. As the story takes place primarily in the South, every person onscreen is acutely aware of how prejudice does or does not affect their lives.

In a departure from her narrative debut, 2017’s Novitiate, Betts tries her hand at comedy with a feel-good tone that has the energy of a 90s-era courtroom drama full of big personalities, emotional monologues and cathartic, crowd-pleasing jokes. Nearly everyone in the cast is trying to get a laugh at one point or another, and the success rate is high. And when things start to lag, the film gets a burst of energy from the introduction of Loewen’s lead attorney, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), who goes up against Gary in the courtroom with cool confidence.

The Burial is a return to form for Foxx, who hasn’t had a role this large and playful in a while. As Gary, the star leans back into his standup roots, riffing in fancy suits and referring to himself in the third person. As Gary’s wife Gloria, Amanda Warren perfectly matches Foxx’s comic energy. They both run away with the film, portraying the real-life couple with immense humor and warmth.

Smollett gets time to shine as the elegant and intelligent Downes, a woman who walks and talks like she knows she’s the smartest person in the room. Despite her somewhat anachronistic form-fitting outfits and modernly chic hair, her line delivery fits perfectly with the time period, and she has palpable chemistry with Foxx. Smollett has been funny since her days as a child star, and it’s refreshing to see her tap into that energy again.

In a sense, The Burial feels like a victory lap for Jones, who has spent the last 30 years playing curmudgeonly yet principled old men who care deeply for the people around them. His chemistry with Foxx is like a more tender version of his work with Will Smith in the Men in the Black films. Foxx gets to be loud and boisterous while Jones responds with succinct, folksy lines that underline the long life he’s lived and the wisdom it’s brought him. But there is one marked difference in this Jones performance: He’s playing an optimist. O’Keefe is a man who believes and wants to invest in a better future. 

Optimism is indeed at the heart of The Burial, a film that genuinely believes in the ability of the legal system to fight injustice. But more than that, it posits that the wealthy can be held accountable for their actions. In a time when everyone is on strike and billionaires refuse to share the wealth to the detriment of society, it’s nice to watch a story in which one very powerful man is forced to confront his own greed and inhumanity.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto International FIlm Festival (Special Presentations)
Director: Maggie Betts
Writers: Doug Wright, Jonathan Harr
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Bill Camp, Mamoudou Athie, Amanda Warren, Pamela Reed, Dorian Missick, Alan Ruck
Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Jamie Foxx, Datari Turner, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman, Bobby Shriver
Executive producer: Ian Watermeier
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Kay Lee
Editor: Lee Percy, Jay Cassidy
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Music by: Michael Abels 
Casting: Kim Coleman
2 hours 4 minutes

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