“The Burial” is “inspired” by a story from the mid-1990s involving Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), owner of a bunch of funeral homes in Mississippi, suing a Canadian competitor for not going through with the promised purchase of some of his outlets. To handle the lawsuit, O’Keefe ditches his longtime attorney, Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), in favor of flashy litigator Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), who hasn’t lost a case in 12 years. Gary’s roster of clients has never included a white man, but he takes the case because of the potential for a huge payday.
While Foxx is playing a showy lawyer known for his theatrics, his over-the-top performance as Gary is too much. I don’t know if director Maggie Betts encouraged him to do it that way or she couldn’t hold him back. Regardless, Gary comes off as cartoonish — and Foxx has proven himself many times over to be a better actor than that.
As for Tommy Lee Jones, he’s wildly miscast. Throughout his career, he’s played strong characters who were always the smartest men in the room. Here, he plays a weak dishrag of a victim with very little to do. The only major cast member who acquits himself well is the venerable Bill Camp, who plays the villain, Ray Loewen, CEO of the Canadian company.
Along the way, Betts uses many of the usual courtroom tropes, including scenes in which Gary makes speeches that would never be allowed by a judge — but this one overrules an objection and says he can continue if he “treads lightly.” To combat Gary and his team of Black lawyers, Loewen hires his own group of Black attorneys, led by Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), who gives as good as she gets. Meanwhile, none of the supporting attorneys on either side do much of anything — including vetting their own witnesses before putting them on the stand, which leads to surprises being revealed that no real legal team would have missed.
Aside from Gary and Downes, the only lawyer who seems good at his job is Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), who digs up some dirt on Loewen that allows Gary to play both the poor-vs-rich angle and the racism card to tilt the majority-Black jury in his favor. Of course, the outcome of the case is never in doubt, because if O’Keefe and Gary lost, there would be no movie about them.
It’s nice to see Pamela Reed back on screen, even if she’s only there to play O’Keefe’s encouraging spouse, Annette, just as Amanda Warren does as Gloria Gary. In re-writing Doug Wright’s original script for “The Burial” (which languished in Hollywood for over a quarter-century before she acquired it), Betts must have realized how much she’d underwritten the latter character. So, she invented a scene in which Gloria shows up at Willie’s hotel room the night before the climactic scene of the trial to pat him on the shoulder and say wifely things that have no bearing on the story.
In the end, “The Burial” is supposed to be a legal thriller, but it offers very little tension and nothing we haven’t seen before in other legal stories. Worse, it wastes two talented lead actors whose names are usually attached to better projects. In fact, instead of watching “The Burial,” I suggest “Just Mercy,” a 2020 courtroom movie starring Foxx and Michael B. Jordan that I reviewed here.
I give “The Burial” a 5 out of 10. Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.