‘The Burial’ Review: Jamie Foxx’s Outstanding Lead Performance Can’t Save Uneven Courtroom Dramedy


This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

I ended up seeing 23 films at this year’s TIFF. There were some high highs (The Holdovers) and some very low lows (Knox Goes Away). In a shocking twist, the movie that received the biggest audience response was The Burial, a film, that as you’ll see in my review below, I thought was decent, but far from the powerhouse it could have been. Still Jamie Foxx‘s performance as Willie E. Gary is one that has stuck with me in the month since I saw it. It’s the kind of performance that should be in consideration for awards.

What makes The Burial ultimately effective is Foxx’s outstanding acting, in a role that feels tailor-made for him. I still know very little as to how much The Burial is true to the real-life events or if Gary was portrayed accurately by Foxx. However, the way he portrays the attorney is something truly special. People often talk about how Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise are two of the only actors remaining who can truly hold an audience’s attention, but Foxx is just as much of a natural.

The Burial is an extremely messy film that never knows whether it wants to be a dramedy or courtroom drama, yet there’s something so inherently watchable about it. There’s so much charm, if it wasn’t premiering alongside a mountain of Oscar contenders, it may have stood out even more.

The Burial has all the right ingredients to make an Oscar-friendly movie: it’s headlined by two legendary Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, it’s a courtroom drama that delves into themes of race and injustice, stems from a promising up-and-coming director in Maggie Betts, and it is based on a true story. Sounds like a recipe for success, right?

Set in the year 1995 is a retelling of a real-life court case where bankrupt funeral home owner Jerry O’Keefe (Jones) sought to sue Loewen Group, a far larger funeral home company, over a contract dispute. After being told that he will be standing trial in a predominately black courtroom, O’Keefe is referred to the flamboyant personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary (Foxx), who takes him on as a client. Of course, the court case doesn’t come easy, especially as the Loewen Group has brought in their own black lawyer, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), who clearly won’t go down without a fight and is willing to dig deep into some of the prejudiced individuals who O’Keefe is associated with. It is that classic underdog story that makes for a surefire crowd-pleaser, but considering Amazon Studios has been trying to get the film off the ground for the past five years, with Alexander Payne originally attached to direct, it’s not hard to question why it took so long for this movie to get made.

‘The Burial’ Suffers From a Wildly Uneven Tone

Image via Prime Video / Skip Bolen 

The Burial is a film that attempts to do a deep dive into real-world issues, particularly with a system that is constantly being rigged against those who are underprivileged. It’s heavy subject matter for any film to tackle, and while it wouldn’t be unusual for a director like Adam McKay to tackle the greediness of big business screwing over those trying to grieve their loved ones, The Burial never plays out like it’s a satire. Instead, much of the humor feels like it’s been ripped right out of a Kevin Hart movie. The script, which was co-written by Betts and playwright Doug Wright, is a Frankenstein’s monster of two radically different tones. There’s a poignant moment where a character discusses how Confederate monuments are being built over the corpses of dead slaves, only to shift about 10 minutes later to see where Jones’ O’Keefe is exchanging giggles with his wife (Pamela Reed) while trying to attempt to negotiate with the CEO of Loewen Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp). If a filmmaker like Payne or McKay had ended up directing The Burial it ultimately would have been a much different movie both for better and for worse.

That’s not to say that a film like The Burial can’t have any levity, in fact, there are more than a handful of genuinely effective laughs scattered throughout the film. At the same time, you really do start to get the sense that this was a script written by two very different screenwriters. It also doesn’t help that despite being a true story, it constantly feels like it’s trying to surprise its audience with certain reveals about the outcome of the trial, despite everything feeling so aggressively predictable from the jump.

RELATED:Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx Battle Corporate Corruption in First ‘The Burial’ Traile

Betts’ passion for telling the story of The Burial is evident. As messy as the film is, it still happens to be extremely entertaining. At the end of the day, it is a crowd-pleaser that wants its audience to smile and nod while feeling good about themselves while title-cards show what became of the real-life people in the film. It’s as inoffensive and safe as a courtroom drama can possibly get and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not something that will make the movie stand out from the hundreds of other movies that are just like this. It feels all too familiar, While 25 years ago this could have been picking up awards left and right, in 2023 it feels like one of those movies that your relatives at the Thanksgiving table might recommend to you, only for you to completely forget about it being mentioned minutes later.

Jamie Foxx’s Insane Charisma Is ‘The Burial’s White Knight

Jamie Foxx as Willie Gary in The Burial
Image via Amazon Studios

Foxx is without a doubt one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood, he’s worked with revered filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Sam Mendes, and Edgar Wright, and he’s proved himself to be capable of performing in just about any kind of genre of film. The role of Willie E. Gary seems like such a natural fit for Foxx, and one that, on paper, could put him in the awards race. Foxx shines in every single moment that he’s on-screen. He’s able to hone in his comedic prowess and his dramatic chops delivering a performance that reminds us why he’s a one-of-a-kind performer. For as jumbled as the film is, it never brings down Foxx’s performance.

Smollett is another major highlight as Mame Downs, and the film is careful never to paint her as a slimy corporate lawyer, but as someone who has been roped into a position she knows deep down is wrong, but is not going down without a fight. In her most pivotal scenes acting opposite Foxx, she comes very close to outshining his charisma.

On the other hand, while Jones isn’t playing the same grumpy and pessimistic old man that he’s been typecast as since The Fugitive, he still never once comes close to matching the kind of hyper-charming energy that all of his cast-mates are able to bring in. Jones is one of those few actors who is almost incapable of turning in a bad performance, even when he’s phoning it in, which is the case with his work in The Burial.

Recent courtroom dramas like Anatomy of a Fall and Just Mercy (which also starred Foxx) have been able to expand the genre in ways that allowed them to dive into unexplored territory. In comparison, The Burial just seems like the same kind of film that has been done to death since the courtroom drama became a thing.

Rating: B-

The Big Picture

  • The Burial has all the ingredients for an Oscar-friendly movie, including a talented cast and a compelling true story about race and injustice.
  • The film struggles with its tone, veering between serious social commentary and lighthearted humor, which makes it feel disjointed.
  • Jamie Foxx gives an outstanding performance, showcasing his charisma and versatility, while Tommy Lee Jones falls short of matching the energy of his co-stars.

The Burial opens in limited theaters on October 6 both streaming on Prime Video starting on October 13.

Las Vegas News Magazine

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