Bless his heart, director Sidney Lumet—who by now qualifies as a living legend—starts his latest picture with the screenwriting credit, followed by the directing credit, followed by his film. 81-year-old Lumet (who won 2005's honorary Oscar a year before fellow octogenarian director Robert Altman accepted his) counts among his credits Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and Q & A, and those are just the pictures set in the criminal justice system. Find Me Guilty keeps Lumet on the familiar ground of a New York courthouse, also the setting of Lumet's underrated 2001-2002 TV series 100 Centre Street.
For the latest screenplay, Lumet and co-writers T.J. Mancini & Robert J. McCrea dug into the public record and came up with the strange-but-true testimony of the longest criminal trial in American history. A genuine spectactle, the 1987 case put twenty members of the Lucchese crime family on trial in one fell swoop. Each defendant had his own lawyer, except Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), a mid-level mobster who ultimately chose to defend himself.
Armed with a sixth-grade education, a sense of humor, and underdeveloped social inhibition, wild-card DiNorsio puts his fellow defendants, his lawyers, the judge and some of the jurors on edge with his wisecracking antics. No one is more concerned than capo Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco), but heavy-hitting defense lawyer Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage) suspects there's an upside to Jackie's disarming style. Between large chunks of actual trial testimony, Lumet strings fact-based connective tissue: the family drama that led to the state's acquistion of an insider witness, strategy meetings amongst the lawyers and defendants, communications between the judge (Ron Silver) and lawyers, and Jackie's visits with his father (Gene Ruffini) and ex-wife (Annabella Sciorra).
"When they fucked with me," says Jackie, "they woke a sleeping giant," and Diesel, too, comes alive, tearing into the role as if his career depended on it. Outfitted in wig and prosthetic makeup, Diesel understands that the guilty but shameless DiNorscio is a man who loves to be loved or, in other words, a celebrity. The big boss loathes him, and the other Mafiosi are skeptical at best, but DiNorscio wins friends and influences people by continually invoking love. Of the cousin who shoots him, he says, "You don't rat out the people who love you...live and let live."
The dysfunctional family politics and legal-dodge-'em games cannot help but conjure TV's The Sopranos, the coattails of which Find Me Guilty clearly hopes to ride (Freestyle Releasing scheduled the film's release to come five days after the hotly anticipated return of Tony Soprano). Ironically, Find Me Guilty is as good as any two-hour sample of The Sopranos: beside the value-addition of truth, Find Me Guilty is exceptionally well-performed, with equal parts humor, dramatic tension, and emotional minutiae (complicated by dietary concerns and disrupted sleep patterns). Diesel, Dinklage, Rocco, Silver, Sciorra, and Linus Roache as the frustrated D.A. have rarely, if ever, been better than they are here.
Lumet's witty composition and staging subtly enhance the humor while telling the story in engaging visual terms. Lumet's efficiency supplies everything the audience needs as the plot hums along, from the archival clip of Rudolph Giuliani to the explanatory end titles (Lumet keenly precedes an establishing shot of the courthouse with shots of TV-van antennas rising to attention—say no more, Sid). Dramatically speaking, Lumet makes only one serious misstep: underscoring Jackie's climactic speech to his band of brothers.
Certainly Diesel's performance and Lumet's direction raise an equally serious question: should we like DiNorscio as much as we do? An unforeseen tragedy and Jackie's philosophies on love and life conjure considerable sympathy, but if we like Jackie, we mostly do so based on the same evidence the jury mulls. We can make our own circumstantial inferences from the fact that Jackie's been in and out of jail his whole life, but if we turn around and like the self-confessed criminal, we have mostly ourselves to blame (Roache delivers an amusing rant to vocalize the subtext of our irrational love affair with the Mafia).
Perhaps there's no justice....if there were, Lumet's return to form would find a wide audience. Surprisingly, he earns his chosen theme song, "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)"—the Prima number slyly summarizes the narrative crux of Find Me Guilty, the most fun I've had at the movies this year.