Students of Hollywood burnout would be wise to examine the case of Vin Diesel. After some attention-grabbing supporting parts in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Boiler Room (2000), and Pitch Black (2000), he became a prime “next action hero” candidate after back-to-back summer hits The Fast and the Furious and XXX. Just as quickly, though, came a couple of financial disappointments: A Man Apart and The Chronicles of Riddick, followed quickly by the kind of self-parody (The Pacifier) that Arnold Schwarzenegger took about a decade to try.
This past spring came an obligatory stab at prestige: Find Me Guilty, a Sidney Lumet courtroom dramedy now on DVD, with Diesel as Jackie DiNorscio, a goombah who refuses to rat out his family and friends — and decides to represent himself during one of the longest mafia trials in US history. Bonus magic words that often put thoughts of Oscars dancing in actors’ heads: it’s based on a true story.
Of course, Hollywood work and release schedules make this sort of straight-line career analysis, if not impossible, then certainly foolhardy. But Diesel’s presence in Find Me Guilty makes too strong an impression to keep his career out of mind while watching it.
The film-writer instinct is to frame it in the context of other Sidney Lumet pictures, and in terms of theme and setting, Find Me Guilty fits in well with them, Lumet having shown an eye for courtroom detail in movies like The Vedict (1982). His professionalism actually manages to trip the newer film up a bit; he so ably depicts an endless trial — complete with some actual testimony used as dialogue — that Find Me Guilty turns tedious, a procedural where not enough gets done. The film, despite Lumet’s spry mobile camera work, simply isn’t interesting enough to be read as anything more than a metaphor for acting.
Jackie Dee cracks jokes in court, you see, and wins over the jury, but the mob family he protects wants nothing to do with him — his cousin tries to kill him in the film’s opening. Yet Jackie doesn’t crack wise (he repeatedly says that he’s not a gangster, but a “gagster”) to screw up his family’s trial; like a lot of showmen, he’s desperate to be loved.
Diesel’s performance as Jackie is convincing, even in his action-hero wake. Perhaps returning to a part that requires some degree of acting awakened an understanding of someone like Jackie. Jackie’s jokes aren’t all that funny on their own, but his ballsy showboating is. Similarly, Diesel gets immediate chutzpah points for hiding his muscles, wearing ugly thinning hair, and playing such a genial doofus. Diesel’s action-picture characters are typically cool, monosyllabic loners by choice. Jackie, though, is a renegade by necessity — his friendliness with the jury and stubborn determination to do what he considers to be the right thing are a form of showbizzy neediness.
The film doesn’t exactly seize on these ideas, though, and the image-flip for Diesel winds up more entertaining than the movie as a whole. Lumet and Diesel may have been equally committed to the project, but the crime drama and courtroom shtick don’t really gel. “Conversations with Sidney Lumet”, an oddly abbreviated collection of interview snippets and the only extra feature on the DVD, gives Lumet a bit of space to talk about his subject and his leading man, but the feature’s brevity limits the scope of his observations: “He’s a superb actor”, the director says. “Very few people know it, but they will after see the movie.”
That’s about it. Find Me Guilty itself is a case of “that’s about it”. The film is polished but thin; the DVD is respectful but bare-bones (no Lumet commentary?); and the director and his star are all dressed up with nothing to say.