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After seeing hundreds of films a year, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the surest and sometimes best pleasure comes from simple comfort food. Director Maggie Betts’ “The Burial,” a throwback '90s inspirational courtroom drama pitched to extreme comedy, comes as simple and sweet as a summer Southern breeze when flashy personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx) arrives in Mississippi to defend the mild-mannered Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) against a multi-billion dollar corporation.
“The Burial” has several wonky components, like thin characters, an oddly framed rivalry, and an anti-climactic ending. And yet, Betts’ crowd-pleasing story of unlikely partners turned friends is undeniably entertaining. It dramatically begins a few months prior, when a broke Jeremiah—an owner of several funeral homes and a burial insurance business—ventures with his longtime lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) to Vancouver, BC, to sell three funeral homes to CEO Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). A deal was struck on Lowen’s yacht, but four months have passed, and Lowen hasn’t signed the contract. Only the young Hal (Mamoudou Athie), a newly minted attorney and family friend, is suspicious: He thinks Loewen is waiting out Jeremiah, hoping the taciturn American’s business crashes, leaving the entire funeral home chain buyable for pennies on the dollar. Hal convinces Jeremiah not only to sue, but to do so in the predominantly Black Hinds County. Here enters Willie E. Gary.
Most mixed-race “We Must Overcome” films like “Green Book,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side” falter by trying to fix the long span of racial inequities within the space of a trite feel-good story, in which only the white character truly feels redeemed and recompensed by credits end. But “The Burial” doesn’t believe it can solve microaggressions, inequality, and racism in its 126-minute runtime. It’s also not affixed to healing Jeremiah of some guilty conscience. Rather, Foxx as Willie is the actual lead in one of his best, most vibrant, and funny performances in recent memory (though “They Cloned Tyrone” is a 2023 highlight for him, too).
In fact, Willie, who really wants to be taken seriously (and make good money), is the only fully sketched character. Jeremiah is mostly functional; apart from his business and large family (he has 13 children) and his wife (Pamela Reed), we don’t learn much about him beyond his reserved personality (a quiet verve Jones can play in his sleep and always very well). We don’t even see his kids. The same can be said about Willie’s wife, Gloria (Amanda Warren), and Jeremiah’s lawyers, Hal and Mike. A similar observation follows Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a distinguished attorney Loewen hires when he realizes he needs Black attorneys to win in a Black county (we never really revisit the sketchiness of Hal reaching out to Willie, unbeknownst him, under the guise of the same tactic). Mame and Willie become friendly rivals—there’s awkward, charged dialogue between them that reads on the borderline of skeevy—leading to sharp tactics in the courtroom and sharp actorly decisions by Smollett as her character navigates representing a wretched white man.
“The Burial” isn’t really about race, but race is certainly all around it, and it takes place in the shadow of the O.J. Simpson trial (Willie often dreams of facing Johnnie Cochran). The terrible racial history of the South is prominently featured: a measured Mamoudou as Hal faces microaggressions, while the National Baptist Convention becomes the key to the case and adds more heart, frustration, and ache to the film.
“The Burial” also relishes in culturally specific Black humor. Willie is an inherently hilarious character: gaudy, in over his head, and self-effacing. Foxx plays all those components wonderfully without diminishing Willie to buffoonish levels. He also takes pleasure in Willie's rhythmic, melodiously signifying speech (the showdown between Foxx and Camp at the film’s climax is a tremendous instance of the actor’s play with layered meaning). Doug Wright and Betts’ comedically attuned screenplay and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s rich costumes combine to craft further sight gags, from Willie and his wife appearing on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” in velvet leisurewear to the lines of Willie’s extravagant suits.
Thrumming through this prototypical David vs. Goliath film is Foxx's heart and soul. Even when the courtroom scenes fall into overly familiar visual patterns, Foxx adds tension, frivolity, and a sense of rigor, elevating “The Burial” from its common bones to a stirring, distinctive comedy with high re-watch value.
This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "The Burial" premieres in select theaters on October 6th and will be available on Prime Video on October 13th.
Jamie Foxx as Willie E. Gary
Tommy Lee Jones as Jeremiah O'Keefe
Bill Camp as Ray Loewen
Teisha Speight as Boy's Mother