jump to navigation

Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Associate” February 21, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham’s latest legal thriller “The Associate” tells the story of young hotshot law student, Kyle McAvoy, who is blackmailed by a clandestine organisation to infiltrate the biggest law firm in the world, Scully & Pershing, to steal some highly confidential information involved in a multi-billion dollar law suit. 

Sounds like a ripper, right?  That’s what I thought when I rushed out to buy the book.  However, I was left disappointed.  Deeply disappointed.  Allow me to explain.

How I found out about the book

“The Associate” was first brought to my attention via an article emailed to me by my best mate, a fellow lawyer who’s slaving away in Biglaw (the colloquial term for big, multinational, nasty law firms) in New York.  In the article, Grisham plugs his new novel, which he claims is very critical of life in Biglaw.  Grisham has no sympathy for young people who sign their lives away to such firms, working around the clock under immense pressure, often leaving their partners, families and morals at the door.  These people know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, Grisham says.  There are plenty of websites and blogs out there that detail the plethora of horror stories at Biglaw.  He’s proud of his currently unemployed son who turned down lucrative Biglaw offers to find work that will help real people.  Grisham even hired a research assistant to spend a year in Biglaw to find out what life is really like under the promise of anonymity – which led to interesting results.

As someone who struggled through 3 years at a big law firm himself (and may return to it), you can understand how I would have been intrigued by “The Associate”.  After all, everything the book seemed to be about connected with me.  I had seen plenty of movies adapted from Grisham’s novels, but I had only read his non-fiction work “The Innocent Man”, which I felt was pretty good.  I’m working on my first novel myself and Grisham’s sold over 250 million books worldwide, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn from the master.

How was it?

And so I went and bought the book and jumped right in.  I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot (any more than the first sentence of this post), but what I will say is that the novel was surprisingly flat.  You find out right at the start about the blackmail and what it was about.  You spend the rest of the book following the young protagonist as he deals with the demands of work, his blackmailers, his father and friends.  You keep expecting something exciting to happen.  Things will pick up any second now and it’ll turn into a real page-turner, you tell yourself.  Brace yourself for unexpected plot twists.  Expectations, expectations, expectations.  But before I knew it, the book was finished.  None of the expectations were fulfilled.

Huh?  That was it?

I flipped the pages again just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had finished reading the novel…and nothing happened.  The entire book was a build up towards nothing.  There wasn’t really a climax.  A few things happened here and there, but there was no big climatic finish, no dramatic twist – just a stern message to stay away from Biglaw.  And that was it.

As I said, I had never read Grisham’s fiction novels before, so there is nothing I can compare it to.  The guy is a good story-teller rather than a good writer.  He tells you what happens more often than he shows you.  He shoots the narrative at you.  It’s almost like reading a report at times.  A good report, but a report nonetheless.  Leaving aside how ridiculous and improbable the plot is (which I don’t generally have a problem with), I can only assume that “The Associate” was an anomaly.  Surely he could not have sold 250 million copies with this type of novel. 

Maybe I should read more of Grisham’s earlier works.  Any suggestions?

Depiction of Biglaw culture

As expected, “The Associate” was extremely critical of life in Biglaw.  I just didn’t expect the novel to be more of a critique of Biglaw life than a legal thriller.  Grisham squeezed in all the “unbelievable but true” stories, painting the most negative picture possible of Biglaw life, including (off the top of my head):

  • working ridiculous hours on end (eg 100 hour weeks), no sleep for days, sleeping under the desk, ridiculous stress, collapsing from exhaustion
  • partners from hell that demand the associate’s every waking hour, torture associates by making them to stay up all night doing pointless work, make up their time sheets and sleep with their secretaries and subordinates
  • inter-office sex and drug scandals
  • the absurdity of billing at 6 minute intervals
  • overbilling clients with outrageous charge-out rates, charging hundreds/thousands of dollars for mundane work like photocopying, charging clients for expensive lunches/dinners unrelated to work
  • having to defend immoral clients that make the world a worse place
  • how the big law firms suck in promising talent with shining promises then turn them into slaves
  • how most new associates leave or burn out within the first few years

The list goes on and on, but you get the point.

As a former (and possibly returning) lawyer in a big law firm, I had heard of all the horror stories, and even experienced quite a few myself.  Working until at least 3am for four consecutive Friday nights was one.  Developing a stress-induced skin condition was another.  A classic was a partner who billed over 430 hours in a single month – while pregnant (that’s over 14 hours a day even if you work every single day of a 30-day month).

However, as told through “The Associate”, I didn’t find it effective or compelling.  Perhaps it was Grisham’s overly preachy tone.  He rams it down your throat without subtlety.  Biglaw is big, bad and evil, and that was that.  Everything was black and white.  Good lawyers help needy people; greedy lawyers and stupid lawyers go to Biglaw.  Or maybe it was the way in which he wrote it, report-like and lacking in true, heart-felt emotion.  Yeah, we know Kyle hated his job, but the lack of underlying emotion and detail made it difficult to put yourself in his shoes.  We know he was feeling dreadful but we don’t feel his dread.

Strangely, despite agreeing with all the negative things about Biglaw, I found myself wanting to defend it while reading “The Associate”.  I wanted to tell Grisham that it’s not ALL bad.  You get to work with insanely clever people, good people with a wealth of knowledge and experience, people who’ve made a positive difference to the world in varying ways; make great friends who stick with you through tough times; and occasionally, you might even do some work you find interesting and rewarding. 

Just because Grisham’s heard and read about all the bad things in Biglaw (and I’ve experienced much of it) doesn’t mean it’s an unworthy or stupid career path.  While I don’t think I’m personally cut out for it, it doesn’t mean that other people aren’t.  I’ve met lawyers who are genuinely in love with their jobs, don’t mind working the hours, get pumped at the challenge of complex transactions and difficult clients, have a true passion for the law.  These people are made for Biglaw.  I’m not one of them, but they exist.  I dislike Biglaw, but other’s don’t have to.  I just think it’s a disservice to the profession and an unfair portrayal of Biglaw and its lawyers.

I would be interested to hear how people who aren’t in law perceived the story, whether they found it fascinating or if they had a similar view.


“The Associate” also contained a story arc dealing with alcoholism.  I don’t want to go into this too much, but it was a little strange.  It fits into the overall story but I couldn’t figure out why it was there or whether it made the story any better.  It was pretty stock-standard stuff, and like Grisham’s depiction of Biglaw, it was also too preachy for my liking.

[Update: this arc may have been based on a true story about a college student who got drunk and did some bad things (similar to the novel); he then went into AA and one of his steps was to apologise to people he had wronged, which he did, but it led to him being arrested and charged.  I won’t say what it was for because that would reveal too much plot.]

The movie adaptation

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Apparently, Shia Lebouf (of Transformers, Disturbia and Indiana Jones 4 fame) has already been signed to play Kyle McAvoy in the movie adaptation of “The Associate.”  I must say, I can see him in that role.  He doesn’t strike me as a particularly clever guy, but I can definitely see him playing a young lawyer with street smarts.  Much of the dialogue almost seemed like it was written with him in mind – dry, scarcastic and sharp.  I think he’ll do a credible job.

However, a movie version of “The Associate” needs a lot of work.  I can already see them changing a lot of the plot in order to make things more intruiging and exciting.  If the story simply runs like the novel, it will be an incredibly boring movie to watch.

The verdict

My first Grisham fiction novel was ultimately a big disappointment.  The story had potential, as did the characters, but for some strange reason, the book never took off like I expected it too.  It started well but rolled on lethargically until a lazy finish.  Fans of Grisham will no doubt lap this up, but unless they see something I don’t, they are likely to be disappointed.  “The Associate” plays out more like a fable preaching against Biglaw than the “vintage Grisham” legal thriller it claims to be.  2 out of 5 stars.

NB: Yay!  My blog’s first book review!

Predicting Oscars 09: who should win and who will February 21, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Entertainment.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

oscarI’m excited.

The ceremony for the 81st Academy Awards is finally about to take place.  I’ve finally managed to see most of the nominated films for the major catgories that are available to me (see reviews here, here and here).  While I initially predicted the winners and losers when the nominations first came out (here and here), the landscape has changed a little and I feel that now, since I’ve seen most of the films, I can also comment on who deserves to win.

So for tomorrow night, here’s who should win and who will (only categories with films I’ve seen).  If there is an asterick (*) next to a nominee it means I have not seen that film (so my views do not include it).

Best Picture

slumdog-millionaire1Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: All great movies.  Based on my ratings and reviews of the films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader scored the highest marks, but I would give the nod to Button.  I just thought it was such an unusual and memorable film.  Though not quite as good, it had a certain Forrest Gump-feel to it (probably because of the same writer).

Who will win: Slumdog Millionaire has been tipped all along and there won’t be anything standing in its way come Oscar night.  There is a teeny little chance for an improbable upset by Button (which had the most nominations) but I can’t see any of the scandals derailing what should be a glorious night for Slumdog.  Especially now that all the child actors are coming to the ceremony (albeit after the voting).

Best Director

boyleNominees: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Stephen Daldry (The Reader), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) Gus Van Sant (Milk)

Who should win: A very difficult one to pick because I feel they all did terrific jobs in their respective films.  If I had to pick one I’d have to go with Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire was just that little bit more extraordinary than the others, and the way he pieced it all together was absolutely masterful.

Who will win: Danny Boyle.  No doubt about it.

Best Actor

rourkeNominees: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor)*, Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)

Who should win: A coin-toss between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.  I saw The Wrestler first and thought Rourke was a lock based on his emotional, nuanced performance, not to mention his amazing physical resemblance to a real-life wrestler.  You felt his physical pain in the ring, you felt his emotional pain outside of it.  It was the performance of a lifetime.  But then I saw Milk and Sean Penn’s performance just blew me away.  Yes, he was playing a real-life character, but man did he do it well.  You honestly believed he was the inspirational Harvey Milk.  Too hard for me to choose.

Who will win: Mickey Rourke.  He’s the sentimental favourite and Penn has already got one (for Mystic River).  The only way Rourke can lose is if he really pissed off as many people in the industry as he claims (and judging from his BAFTA acceptance speech I can kind of see how it might be possible).

Best Actress

kate-winslet-golden-globes-2009-best-actressNominees: Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Melissa Leo (Frozen River)*, Meryl Streep (Doubt), Kate Winslet (The Reader)

Who should win: Really tough choice.  I think as far as the performance is concerned, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway are all very deserving (Jolie was very good but not quite there).  But based on the difficulty of the roles they had to play I would give Kate Winslet the edge.  Her character was so important to what The Reader was trying to tell and she played each phase of Hanna Schmitz’s life wonderfully.

Who will win: Kate Winslet.  It’s her time.  Streep is consistently this good so she won’t stand out as much, whereas Hathaway is young and she’ll have plenty of chances (plus her role is less sensational).

Best Supporting Actor

ledgerNominees: Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey Jr (Tropic Thunder), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Who should win: Heath Ledger.  As terrific as Hoffman was in Doubt and Shannon was in Revolutionary Road, Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight will forever be remembered as one of the great ones.  I still remember when he was first cast as the Joker and plenty of people scoffed at the idea that he could pull it off (even after Brokeback Mountain).  No one is denying that he was the right man for the role now.

Who will win: Heath Ledger.  All the major awards leading up to the Oscars indicate he will win.  I honestly believe he deserves it, even if he were still alive today – the performance was that mesmerizing.  The fact that he’s not around anymore just about locks it in.

Best Supporting Actress

cruzNominees: Amy Adams (Doubt), Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Viola Davis (Doubt), Taraji P Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)

Who should win: The ones that stood out for me were Amy Adams and Taraji P Henson.  Marisa Tomei was wonderful in The Wrestler but I liked the other two more.  Viola Davis was barely in Doubt, though she made great use of her limited screen time.  Penelope Cruz was good but I didn’t think the performance was Oscar-worthy – or maybe I just didn’t like the character.

Who will win: Penelope Cruz.  In this case, I think the least deserving will win.  She’s the most well-known of the group and her role was different and explosive.  Plus all the focus has been on her leading up to the Oscars.  I hope she doesn’t win but I think she will.

Best Original Screenplay

in-brugesNominees: Frozen River*, Happy-Go-Lucky*, In Bruges, Milk, WALL-E

Who should win: Having only seen 3 of the 5 nominees, I don’t feel sufficiently equipped to judge this one.  Out of the 3 films I did see, they were all very good, but probably In Bruges stood out as just being somewhat special.

Who will win: In Bruges has taken a lot of the lead-up awards, but WALL-E is also a favourite because it manages to do so much with so little dialogue.  I’m going with In Bruges but won’t be surprised in WALL-E took it out.  Note I originally picked Milk, but that was before I saw most of the films.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: “Adapted” screenplay is thrown around a little loosely because some of the scripts I’m sure barely resemble the original source.  Nevertheless, I thought the adaptation of The Reader was sensational, dealing with the majority of the themes and events perfectly in Bernhard Schlink’s novel.

Who will win: Originally picked Doubt but after seeing the film I felt the adaptation could have been better.  I have a feeling this award will be lumped with the bunch of awards that Slumdog Millionaire will win on the night.


Nominees: Changeling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: Another tough one.  I’m don’t have any technical specialty so this is based purely on what I thought looked best.  And using that criterion, I thought Changeling was particularly memorable, though Slumdog Millionaire’s eye-opening portrayal of Mumbai was also impressive.

Who will win: Slumdog to bag another one.


Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire

Who should win: Another technical one, but I liked the work in Button, where editing was particularly important.

Who will win: This might be one of those sympathy awards given to Button, which, despite all its nominations, continues to be beaten by Slumdog.  I hope so because I think in this case it deserves the award.

Art Direction

benjamin-button1Nominees: Changeling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, The Duchess*, Revoluntionary Road

Who should win: I thought the Art Direction in Changeling was the best, though The Dark Knight was pretty cool too.

Who will win: A category where Slumdog was not nominated?  Chalk this one up to Button because when the two films go head to head, it’s going to lose out most times.


Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Who should win: No contest – the make-up in Button was just ridiculous.  Sure, Hellboy II was good, but we had seen it all in the first film.

Who will win: Button.  The make-up had to be seen to be believed – especially the old Cate Blanchett.

Visual Effects

buttonNominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Iron Man

Who should win: Another no contest in favour of Button.  As goods as the effects were in the two superhero films, the effects in Button were the best I’ve ever seen.  Freakishly amazing.

Who will win: See above.  Button all the way.  It cannot not win.

Costume Design

Nominees: Australia*, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Duchess*, Milk, Revoluntionary Road

Who should win: Only seen 3 of the 5 films, so not qualified.  Though from what I’ve seen of the other 2, The Duchess looked great.

Who will win: The Duchess had won the earlier awards so I look for the trend to continue.

Music (Original Score)

Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Defiance*, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E

Who should win: To be honest I can’t really remember much of the music in any of the films – except the Bollywood music in Slumdog.

Who will win: Slumdog, just because it’s the favourite to win.

Music (Original Song)

slumdogNominees: Slumdog Millionaire (twice), WALL-E

Who should win: Slumdog – one of the songs was pretty good.

Who will win: Slumdog – it has a 2 in 3 chance anyway.


Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E

Who should win: The sound in The Dark Knight stood out for me amongst the nominees.  It was probably the Batcycle.

Who will win: Slumdog.

Sound Editing

the-dark-knightNominees: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E, Wanted

Who should win: Now this I remember pretty well, and The Dark Knight was phenomenal.

Who will win: The Dark Knight.  I hope it gets this one – and Slumdog can’t just win them all.

Animated Film

walleNominees: Bolt*, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E

Who should win: Not a big fan of animated films but WALL-E wasn’t too bad.  Kung Fu Panda was pretty ordinary and Bolt (which I haven’t seen) didn’t look too crash hot either.

Who will win: WALL-E – pretty much a lock. 

Oscars/Golden Globes Film Reviews Part III February 21, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve done it.  I finally managed to watch all the Oscar/Golden Globe nominated films I could possibly get to before the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!

Here’s the third instalment of my short Flixter film reviews and possibly the best of the lot!  The first instalment can be found here (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, The Reader, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, In Bruges, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Changeling, Mamma Mia, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda) and the second here (WALL-E and Gran Torino).

Again, ratings are out of 5 stars.

rachel-getting-married1Rachel Getting Married (3.5 stars)

Years of suppressed family emotions explode around a family wedding. Well-written script with some clever dialogue and witty interactions, even though this type of drama would not be everyone’s cup of tea. A remarkable performance by Anne Hathway (I didn’t know she could act this well) and a solid supporting cast. Not all of it worked but enough of it did.

doubt1Doubt (3.5 stars)

Extraordinary performances all round (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as always, but Amy Adams really stole the show as the doubting nun), but it was an obvious play adaptation with lots and lots of talking. The characters were extremely well defined, though I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain clunkiness in the way things panned out. Not to take away too much from this film because it tackles many of the themes very cleverly through subtle actions and explosive dialogue.  Doubt is indeed an apt title for this film.

milkMilk (4 stars)

True story about the first openly gay public official in America.  Pretty incredible movie and a ridiculously superb performance by Sean Penn. It was entertaining, informative, frightening and enlightening all at the same time. Hard to believe it was only 30 years ago that this happened in our world. I particularly liked the ending where they showed the real life counterparts of the actors.

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road (4 stars)

It’s hard to know where to begin with a movie that explores the essence of life, love, marriage, children, work, dreams, hopes and reality. It is so rare to see such a brutal, honest, emotional portrayal of suburban and married life, no matter what era. Granted, some people won’t get it for one reason or another, but those that do will find a story that will resonate with them for a long time. All performances are outstanding – I know Kate Winslet has gotten all the attention for this role and The Reader, but Leonardo DiCaprio is really her equal in this film, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the same recognition. Michael Shannon was also brilliant and stole every scene he was in.

benjamin-buttonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (4.5 stars)

A strange premise but an ultimately rewarding film. The make up and special effects are the best I’ve ever seen, both the ageing and the de-ageing stuff is just phenomenal. The film works not really as a running narrative but rather as a series of moments, like its tagline. I found it very captivating to go through the journey of life with this bizarre character, through his ups and downs, flaws and all. There are some minor problems and it is a tad too long, plus Brad Pitt wasn’t truly able to capture the nuances of the ageing process (he acted like the way he looked rather than the age he was) – however, I think when it’s all said and done this is one of the more memorable movies in recent years.

*     *     *

NB: Just a few words about my rating and review system.  First and foremost, they are taken directly from Flixter, so are always short.  I don’t like to discuss too much plot in my reviews because I think it ruins a movie.  Which is why (even though I can’t help but watch them) I generally dislike previews because they tend to give away too much by revealing the best bits and almost always contain spoilers.  I also hate long reviews that reveal too much plot (this happens a lot these days in reviews I read) – what’s the point of telling everyone what the entire film is about?  With my ratings, they are out of 5 and are entirely subjective, always decided on the spot based on gut instinct after viewing.  I never re-adjust a rating afterward and I don’t compare them to previous ratings – hence two films can have the same rating but I may think one is better than the other.  Also, I tend to find there is a significant difference between 2.5 stars (below average) and 3 stars (good) and 3.5 stars (pretty good) and 4 stars (excellent), more so than other half-star differences.

Lastly, the only 5 star film reviewed in these 3 posts is The Wrestler, which I think is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.  For the Best Picture Oscar nominees, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are tied with 4.5 stars, but I think the latter is the film I prefer.  Though it is a moot point anyway since Slumdog Millionaire is going to win!

%d bloggers like this: