Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 8, 2020)
Over the years, “true crime” stories have endured as public favorites, and if you inject wealth and scandal into the mix, so much the better. Though usually the purview of lowbrow entertainment, this subject matter got “A-list” treatment via 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.
In late 1980, wealthy socialite Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close) slips into a mysterious coma – her second within a year’s time. It appears that occurred due to an overdose of insulin, and her husband Claus (Jeremy Irons) finds himself accused of attempted murder.
Though most believe the philandering Claus committed the crime, he professes his innocence. Nonetheless, his initial trial finds him guilty.
Granted an appeal, Claus hires high-profile attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to handle the case. The story follows these efforts and related complications.
Despite the fact his name doesn’t appear until late in that plot summary, Dershowitz plays a much more prominent role in Fortune than otherwise might be assumed. The film rushes through Sunny’s coma and the first trial in a hurry, so we meet Dershowitz less than 10 minutes into the movie.
Not that we stay solely – or even mainly – in the period after Claus’s first trial, of course. No one hires Glenn Close to play a comatose woman for five minutes of screentime, so it makes sense that we get plenty of flashbacks to see the Claus/Sunny relationship and connected events.
Because Fortune comes based on Dershowitz’s account of the case, it comes as no surprise that his part of the story dominates. Still, I like the orientation, as it gets to the meat of the matter without the desire to waste the viewer’s time.
Face it: anyone who sees Fortune knows that Sunny will end up in a coma and Claus will find himself on trial. While we need the flashbacks to tell us what happened, the choice to revolve the movie around the appeal trial allows the film to have its cake and eat it too.
Sort of. While I get the choice to make Dershowitz the focal point, he proves to be the least interesting of the three leads, so we enjoy our time with him less than with the others.
Actually, we get so little of a non-comatose Sunny that she plays a surprisingly small part. Granted, she becomes more prominent in the movie’s second half, but she still plays the third lead at best.
However, Claus becomes much more compelling, so every minute we spend with Dershowitz makes us wish we could see Claus instead.
Some of that comes from the basic nature of this slippery character, but much of the appeal stems from Irons’ performance. The actor won a much deserved Oscar for his turn, as he makes Claus an enigma wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside a Twinkie.
Irons’ time on screen shines, and the film sags when it focuses solely on Dershowitz. Don’t take that as a criticism of Silver, as he delivers a more than competent performance.
However, Dershowitz tends to come across as a grating character, so we don’t particularly like the scenes that concentrate on him. We also just get too many of them for the basic narrative, as we need more Claus/Sunny and less Alan.
Despite these iffy choices, Fortune nonetheless becomes a fairly engaging movie. It pursues an intriguing story in a mostly compelling way, even if it needs a stellar lead performance from Irons to carry the day.