Sergio De La Pava’s PEN prize-winning debut novel, A Naked Singularity, is a messy, maximalist slab of stream-of-consciousness prose in which the main storyline is a perfect crime, wrapped in digressions on countless subjects, among them astrophysics, philosophy, boxing and the deeply flawed American justice system. Screenwriter Chase Palmer, best known for adapting Stephen King’s It, tackles this challenging source material with verve in his first feature as director, which premieres as the opener of the San Francisco Film Festival. It’s a slick package and reasonably entertaining, but the indefinite article of the book’s title is not the only thing lost.
Chiseling a heist thriller that aims for the snap and sizzle of a Baby Driver out of the unwieldy novel, Palmer and his co-writer David Matthews hurtle through the careful planning that’s a basic requirement of this type of crime caper. There’s a nagging feeling of a film trying to be too cool and clever for its own good, substituting fast talk for airtight plotting and well-rounded characters.
The story’s foundation is the tarnished idealism of young Manhattan public defender Casi (John Boyega), battling against the soulless machine of the U.S. criminal justice system in an attempt to level the playing field. “Once you fall in, it’s almost impossible to get out,” he observes in introductory voiceover before suggesting that perhaps it’s possible to shift that harsh reality and beat the system at its own game.
Some of the film’s best scenes are Casi’s thorny courtroom encounters with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin), who responds to his outspoken pleas for punishment commensurate to the smalltime crimes of his defendants by doubling down on her intransigence. She’s a figure of monstrous indifference, played with amusingly acerbic superiority by the redoubtable Lavin. If only some of the other characters were as incisively drawn.
Casi’s frustration is matched by that of Lea (Olivia Cooke), a former client who works the customer window at the NYPD tow pound, brushing off the boss who keeps hitting on her while knowing that her criminal record gives her few options for better employment. She gets mixed up with Craig (Ed Skrein), a skeevy drug dealer who enlists her help with an impounded SUV containing a hidden heroin stash worth millions.
When she’s caught with a sample of the drugs, Lea talks her way out of a conviction by disclosing the plot to buy back the car and sell the heroin to a Brooklyn crime syndicate. But Casi becomes aware that she’s playing the cops while continuing to collaborate with Craig; Lea believes that her cut of the deal will be her fresh start.
Casi shares the details of the drug deal with his buddy Dane (Bill Skarsgård), a cynical fellow defender who sees it as their golden opportunity for elevation from the ranks of the weak to the strong. Worn down by the meat grinder of his job and faced with a six-month suspension after a complaint to his supervisor from Judge Cymbeline, Casi reluctantly gets on board with Dane’s plan to steal the cash.
Palmer juices up the heist scenes with split screen and Katharine McQuerrey’s propulsive editing. But even with the complications of Craig’s treachery and the threat of a Mexican cartel closing in, there’s a shortage of detail in the plotting that saps the suspense. The ending feels too neat, too easy.
There’s also insufficient involvement with the characters. Following his intense work in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, Boyega again proves himself a compelling lead, not to mention thoroughly convincing playing American. But we don’t ever get to know much about Casi beyond his empathy, his bristling indignation at the unduly heavy hand of the law with his marginalized defendants, and the fact that his mother was deported to Colombia.
Cooke shows different shades here than in Sound of Metal, with a thick Noo Yawk accent to chew on and a dead-eyed stare for every creep who comes on to her. And Skarsgård, reteaming with Palmer after It, is cocky and flippant without being entirely obnoxious. But I never really found myself rooting for this scrappy band of underdog cohorts to outwit both cops and criminals.
The other issue is the attempt to capture the brainy thematic sprawl of the book, mostly via Casi’s shut-in physicist neighbor Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), whose predictions about the gravitational pull of black holes provide a countdown of sorts to the Big Deal in Brooklyn in periodic chapter headings: “12 Days Until the Collapse,” etc. But touches like this, the city power blackouts and the conspiracy theories of Craig feel more like random quirks than contextual positioning in an imploding universe.
The sense of place in the New York City locations, on the other hand, is sharply etched in DP Andrij Parekh’s spiffy visuals, with a pleasing pop-noir feel to the many night scenes. Brendan Angelides’ energizing score also helps keep things moving. But the brisk pacing and capable cast still can’t quite mask a certain routine feel in a movie without much heart. “This is our chance,” says one of the protagonists of the multimillion-dollar heist. But somehow, the stakes never acquire much urgency.
Venue: San Francisco Film Festival
Production companies: Scott Free, Wolf Entertainment
Cast: John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård, Ed Skrein, Linda Lavin, Tim Blake Nelson, Kyle Mooney, Robert Christopher Riley, K. Todd Freeman, Robert Bogue, Liza Colon-Zayas, Scott Barrows, Teddy Cañez
Director: Chase Palmer
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, David Matthews, based on the novel A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava
Producers: Tony Ganz, Kevin J. Walsh, Ryan Stowell, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Dick Wolf, Sebastian Raybaud, John Zois, Francois Callens, Mark Roberts, Tony Pachella, Deborah Roth, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Elizabeth Jones
Costume designer: Aileen Abercrombie
Music: Brendan Angelides
Editor: Katharine McQuerrey
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Endeavor Content/Anton