Sometimes, it takes a really good actor to give a really bad performance.
That’s what I found myself considering tonight as I watched the 1991 film, Class Action. I recorded this film off of Starz a few months ago, mostly due to the fact that I usually enjoy legal dramas. Class Action is about a father and a daughter, both of whom are attorneys, who find themselves facing each other in court. Gene Hackman plays Jedediah Ward Tucker while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played Maggie, his daughter.
From the very first scenes, Jed Tucker is portrayed as being a firebrand, a crusader who stands up for the little guy against big corporate interests. (“Jed Ward is a great man!” one his clients exclaims while the other lawyers nod along in agreement.) Tucker is flamboyant, loud, perpetually outraged, in love with attention, and determined to make the world a better place. This is the type of role that would probably encourage any actor to overact just a bit. However, when you cast someone like Gene Hackman in the role, the performance becomes a masterclass in overacting. Gene Hackman was never a particularly subtle actor to begin with and casting him as Jed Tucker guarantees about two hours of Hackman bellowing, smirking, occasionally flirting, and basically coming across less like Gene Hackman and more like someone doing a particularly antic impersonation of Gene Hackman. Hackman goes so over overboard in the role that it becomes rather fascinating to watch. You watch and you ask yourself, “How much louder can he get? He much more obviously can he telegraph his intentions? Just how Gene Hackmanish is Gene Hackman going to get in this film?” Don’t get me wrong, Gene Hackman was a great actor. (He famously retired in 2004, after the indignity of appearing in Welcome to Mooseport.) One need only watch Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, Unforgiven, and The Royal Tennenbaums to see that Gene Hackman was a great actor. But sometimes, it takes a great actor to give a memorably bad performance.
Gene Hackman’s performance, as overbaked as it may be, is actually the only interesting thing about Class Action. It’s a well-made but ultimately rather silly mix legal maneuvering and family drama. Jed was a terrible father so Maggie becomes a corporate attorney in order to spite him. Class Action so embraces the idea that all professional women are motivated by daddy issues that even Aaron Sorkin would probably look at it and say, “Whoa, that’s really demeaning.” At one point, Maggie says to her father, “Have you ever considered that I might be a good attorney?,” just to have her father smirk and say that’s only because he’s her father. Jed’s response is to be expected, as he’s kind of an arrogant windbag. The problem is that the movie itself doesn’t seem to be willing to consider that Maggie could be a good attorney.
The other problem, of course, is that Class Action makes its good guys and its bad guys so painfully obvious that it’s hard to take any of the conflicts seriously. Of course, the big corporate law firm is going to be evil and of course, Jed Ward’s associates are going to be saints even if Jed isn’t. Laurence Fishburne plays Jed’s protégée and he gets stuck with all of the worst lines. Far more entertaining is future U.S. Senator and presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson, playing a doctor who explains why it actually costs less for a car company to settle a lawsuit than to fix a design flaw.
Class Action is a forgettable film, not so much terrible as just bland. That said, if you want to hear some vintage Gene Hackman-style yelling, this might be the film for you.