Tuesday 18 August 2020

On demand: "Find Me Guilty"

The based-on-true-events romp Find Me Guilty underperformed at the US box office and bypassed cinemas altogether in the UK, leading its star Vin Diesel - then hot from flexing his thespian muscles in 2000's Boiler Room - to all but abandon serious acting and instead become a well-paid crash test dummy in the Fast & Furious franchise. Its subject is a notoriously attenuated RICO trial held in New York in the late 1980s, during which hubristic wiseguy Jackie DiNorschio (played here by Diesel in a hairpiece) became the headline story with his efforts to defend himself. What Sidney Lumet, returning to the milieu of 1957's 12 Angry Men, is really drawn to is the theatre of the trial itself. After some initial scene-setting, the bulk of the running time and budget is reserved for the courtroom, where we find Judge Ron Silver presiding, a hundred or so (mostly Italianate) extras in attendance, and DiNorschio earning big laughs by behaving like no onscreen lawyer since Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar. As a vehicle for an emergent star, it could scarcely be more effective: Diesel is literally handed the floor, switching between that wisecracking, yarn-spinning and outright bullshitting to which movie mobsters are prone, and generally turning a hallowed palace of American justice into open-mic night at the Copacabana. This DiNorschio plays shamelessly to the home crowd of mobsters gathered around him, while playing up the idea he's just a salt-of-the-earth blue-collar type ("I'm not a gangster, I'm a gagster") who's been unfairly screwed by the system - encouraging exactly the kind of complacency among the jury on which organised criminals may depend. If there's something a little preening in the performance, it fits the character better than his own cheap suits.

If it feels more than just a one-man show, that's down to Lumet cramming the background of every other frame with superior character actors: Linus Roache, spluttering through a rehearsal for his later Law & Order work as the confounded DA, the kind of exasperated stiff a gag like this needs to sustain itself, Peter Dinklage amusingly precise as the defence lawyer who nudges DiNorschio in the right direction. No longer central to the studio system that cultivated (and knew how to sell) his great films, Lumet mostly lets events play themselves out without undue tricksiness - the film's classical modernism is refreshing - throwing up droll captions ("day 521") over a spectacle going nowhere fast, a real theatre of the absurd. Occasionally, he pushes a little deeper, as per a rec-room confrontation between DiNorschio and the ex-wife who saw through his bravado (Annabella Sciorra, giving a vivid reminder of what Weinstein-era cinema had sidelined); it's meant as a sign of the mobster's impossible charm that it ends with an interrupted hook-up. Its main achievement is a nice, easy seesawing of tone. Most contemporary directors, handed this tale, would come back with something considerably glibber, I suspect; Lumet enters just enough evidence to suggest that his characters' thuggishness and system-trashing ought really be no laughing matter, and still sends us away with amused smiles on our faces. That tonal achievement factored into Lumet's late masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, another New York crime story anchored by tremendous Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman performances; if this one had scraped its way to $50-75m, as it might have done if it had emerged amid the John Grisham cycle of the Nineties, Diesel might have been an Oscar nominee by now. Funny how things work out.

Find Me Guilty is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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