You might find Vin Diesel guilty of any number of offenses in Sidney Lumet’s new film. First, his hair. Second, his over-killed New Jersey gangster’s accent. But as Jackie Dinorsio, a middling mobster prosecuted along with 20 other members of the Luccese crime family in a trial that takes some 21 months, he’s actually the least of Find Me Guilty‘s problems.
That’s not to say that Diesel’s visibly eager efforts to expand his acting range — from rough-and-tumble action hero to rough-and-tumble babysitter to rough-and-tumble gangster — are quite convincing. But he more or less holds his own amid the typecast company who surround him here. Given that he appears in nearly every scene here, he shoulders his responsibility, playing wide and broad for most of these 125 minutes. Yes, he plays a crying scene (following news of the death of Jackie’s beloved mother) with his hand in front of his face, the camera unhelpfully unmoving. But that’s also a strange enough moment as to seem an error of multiple judgments, not just Diesel’s.
In fact, he’s facing considerable odds here. The shapeless script, reportedly based on actual, unwieldy court transcripts, delivers a series of disjointed scenes and occasional punch-lines for jokes that aren’t very funny. (The film’s promotion suggests it’s a straight-up comedy, but it’s not, though Diesel does his best to perform Jackie’s self-description as a “gagster,” as opposed to a “gangster”). He’s got not one but three crises on his hands, none compelling or resolved. And once he begins his pro se lawyering performance in the courtroom, he’s also got to make a story out of a string of witnesses, none helping him or the film make sense.
Jackie’s introduced as a cocky SOB, snoozing in his bedroom as his bored, short-shortsed daughter toils in the kitchen downstairs. Enter the sweaty junkie cousin, Tony (Raúl Esparza), who rushes upstairs and unloads his gun into Jackie’s chest. The daughter screams, the victim looks bloody and done for, but no. This is his movie. The next scene shows not only that he’s recovered and forgiven Tony (being a junkie, big-hearted Jackie reasons, the cousin doesn’t know what he’s doing), but he’s also facing a greater foe with massive resources, the state of New Jersey (emboldened, in 1987, by the hard charging of young U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani).
Called to snitch on his “family,” Jackie does the good soldier thing, and refuses. The prosecutor comes up with another angle, and has Jackie picked up on a drug charge, a serious enough offense that, when convicted, he’s sentenced to 30 years. Still, Jackie remains steadfast, and so becomes part of prosecutor Sean Kierney’s (Linus Roache) elaborate RICO case against the Lucceses, the largest and longest criminal trial in U.S. history (there’s an obvious joke here, concerning the length of Find Me Guilty, but let’s not say it). To underline the size, the film tends to long, wide shots of defendants as a crowd, but these tend to resemble mass casting calls for The Sopranos, everyone making gangster faces and gesturing with his hands).
Unimpressed by the prosecutor’s fancy language, Jackie decides to defend himself, occasionally aided by lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage, whose addresses to the court are each preceded by a strange “bit” where an aide wheels in a stand to raise him to the jury box level). Jackie harrumphs and smirks and shuffles for the jury, so uncouth that they begin to think he’s “cute.” And so, the lawyers for all the other gangsters figure they might as well let him play it out — he just might end up making the “family” look like a family, sympathetic rather than murderous, admirably devoted to one another rather than sociopathic.
Jackie certainly strains everyone’s patience, including that of his fellow defendants (all 19 of them) and boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco, still playing Moe Green). Not to mention Judge Finestein (Ron Silver), whose efforts to control proceedings fail predictably, as he plays pathetic “straight man” to Jackie’s antics. For a minute or two, the film seems poised to “develop” this relationship, beyond the courtroom posturing and the objections and the near censures. As Finestein endeavors to break the news of Jackie’s dead mama in a gentle, even compassionate way, the men seem almost to be working in a rhythm, awkward but identifiable. But then comes the crying business, and the scene breaks down into nonsense.
At this point, it appears that the film’s various distractions — its stilted dialogue, perversely immobile camera (this from the director who made Dog Day Afternoon), and weirdly show-stopping events (as when one aging defendant, having been wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney, rolls off it during a testimony) — have finally done it in.
And then comes a scene — wholly uneven and bizarre — that suggests another possibility. Having heard of his mother’s death, Jackie’s ex-wife Bella (Annabella Sciorra) arrives, bringing with her a subtlety and intelligence missing from the rest of the film. But even this takes a battering, as the camera holds a two shot while the couple stands and converses, the space between them widening as the camera closes, their positions painfully rigid. And then that’s over, Sciorra works a teeny bit of magic during a painful near-seduction, Diesel responds (less magically), and the scene ends. At last.