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If nothing else, it'll kill some time

For everything, there is a season: a time to love, a time to cry _ all those things the Bible or the Byrds told us about.

Now, in the summer movie season when things can get really dumb comes A Time to Kill, in which filmmakers address hot-button topics such as racism and judicial miscarriages, and prove themselves to be equal-opportunity trivialists.

Not that they had a challenging manifesto to adapt in the first place. Novelist John Grisham admits he composes books with the movies in mind, with a popcorn mentality that has no goal loftier than occupying our time. Filter that attitude through big-budget Hollywood machinery that expresses itself in figurative italics. The result is a superficial melodrama that some audiences will embrace only because it does the minimally-required thinking for them.

A Time to Kill focuses on sleepy Madison County, Miss., where a couple of grimy rednecks rape a 10-year-old African-American girl. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) is certain the local courts won't provide justice, so he guns down the defendants in the courthouse. Carl Lee faces execution for his actions, while his understaffed defense team faces racist aggression from the Ku Klux Klan.

Director Joel Schumacher _ a Grisham veteran after The Client _ handles these matters with a lack of delicacy or nuance that marks his Batman endeavors. The rape scene is detailed with such horror that Carl Lee's revenge can't avoid our support. The KKK is portrayed as a good ol' boys club, with easy-to-read membership applications and a cartoonish secrecy that recalls the arch Omega fraternity in Animal House. Subtlety isn't a strong suit of Schumacher's, but such edgy topics deserve it.

Matthew McConaughey (Boys on the Side, Lone Star) plays Jake Brigance, a young, not-very-ambitious lawyer who accepts Carl Lee's case. Much has been written about his rapid rise in the industry, and his performance shows hope that he isn't just another pretty, chiseled face. His laconic style recalls the young Kevin Costner or Gary Cooper, with a convincing sense of laid-back heroism. We'll see more of him, let's hope in more compelling films.

Jackson is solid, as usual, but the simplicity of Akiva Goldsmith's screenplay burdens him with dumb-hick dialogue, which drew some inappropriate snickers from a preview audience. Carl Lee only wises up when the drama dictates he should, adding to the lack-of-credibility factor.

Sandra Bullock gets top billing, but fans will be sorely disappointed that she's a peripheral player in A Time to Kill. Bullock pops in and out of the action as law student Ellen Roark, who inexplicably takes an interest in Carl Lee's case. (Maybe she heard he has a studly lawyer by his side.) Like some fairy courtmother, Ellen drops helpful hints in Jake's lap, while we groan at her impeccable, manipulative timing.

Like The Firm, this Grisham tale is chock full of movie-machine nuts and dolts: a boozy divorce lawyer with an Elvis fixation (Oliver Platt), a slimy district attorney (Kevin Spacey), and a good woman to worry about Jake on the sidelines (Ashley Judd, who seems to be tragically settling into these roles after a dynamic debut as Ruby in Paradise three years ago). They look like Olivier next to Keefer and Donald Sutherland, respectively silly as a KKK convert and Jake's drunken mentor.

When the tension sags (about every 20 minutes), Schumacher resorts to another stagy face-off with those nasty KKK guys. Moviegoers alert to post-O.J. judicial tactics will wonder why some of these courtroom moves are allowed, or why Carl Lee doesn't sell his story to a TV network or tabloid when a money crunch occurs.

A Time to Kill doesn't give us credit for noticing the sloppiness of the whole affair. The filmmakers seem to think if we hear the "n" word tossed around a few dozen times that we're gaining some insight into America's racial divisions.

Well, I have another "n" word for Schumacher's time-waster:

"Naaaaaaaah."

MOVIE REVIEW: C

A Time to Kill

Director: Joel Schumacher

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Ashley Judd, Donald Sutherland

Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, from the novel by John Grisham

Rating: R; profanity, violence, sexual situations

Running time: 118 min.

Studio: Warner Bros.

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