Find Me Guilty

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/17/06 00:09:07

"Come to laugh at Diesel's hairpiece, stay to see Lumet's best work in years"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Veteran director Sidney Lumet has had a career filled with ups and downs–not too surprising for a man who has directed over forty feature films, not to mention a lot of television work as well–but he tended to do his best work when dealing with courtroom dramas or true-life New York-based crime stories. His efforts in the former genre have included the likes of “12 Angry Men,” “The Verdict” and “Night Falls on Manhattan” while his dabblings in the latter have inspired the likes of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico” and his finest film to date, his dazzling 1981 epic “Prince of the City.” His latest effort, “Find Me Guilty,” plays as a fusion of the two genres and perhaps the notion of combining the two (which he did to a certain extent in “Prince of the City”) inspired him in some way because the film is far and away his best and most consistent work in years.

The film opens on a bizarre note as Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), a mid-level member of the Lucchese crime family, as he is shot four times in bed by a jittery drug-addled cousin. Despite this, Jackie refuses to identify him to the cops because he will not squeal under any circumstances out of family loyalty, both of them. Before long, Jackie, who is under investigation for possible violations of the RICO act, is arrested in a drug deal and winds up with a 30-year sentence. Before long, ambitious D.A. Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) offers him a deal–testify against members of the Lucchese family when the RICO indictments are handed down and he can reduce his sentence. Naturally, Jackie refuses and he finds himself one of twenty defendants fighting over 76 charges in a trial that would eventually go on for 21 months and become the longest criminal trial in U.S. history.

One reason for the astonishing length is the fact that each one of the defendants, all of whom are being tried together, has his own defense attorney. Each one, that is, except for Jackie. Deeply cynical of attorneys thanks to his recent incarceration and with nothing to lose–unlike his fellow defendants, he is going back to jail regardless of the trial outcome–Jackie decides to act as his own attorney despite a complete lack of formal legal training. The judge presiding over the case inevitably responds to this announcement by asking if Jackie has ever heard the saying about how the man who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client. “Now I have,” is his response and the glibness of that remark is at the heart of his defense strategy. It consists of trying to demystify the mobster image by appearing as a regular guy who prefers joking around to making threats–as he puts it in his opening remarks, “I’m a gagster, not a gangster.”

This attitude does not sit well with some of his co-defendants, chiefly family head Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco), who fears that Jackie’s lack of control will either cause him to spill something incriminating or annoy the jurors, while the D.A. derides his act as being “like Deepak Chopra with a pinkie ring.” However, Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), the leader of the defense attorneys, isn’t so sure–to him, the jury seems to be responding favorably to Jackie. More importantly, his lack of formal training doesn’t prevent him from making the kind of points that help sink seemingly airtight cases. One prosecution witness, for example, folds on the stand when Jackie simply inquires how he was able to identify a group of people he saw, but didn’t hear, as being “Italian” and effectively turns the answer back against the witness in a manner that Perry Mason himself would have approved.

Watching “Find Me Guilty,” some viewers may find the courtroom dramatics too good to be true but, according to the opening credits, most of the dialogue during those scenes has been taking directly from the original transcripts. Personally, I am inclined to believe this because if this stuff was completely made up, I have a feeling that Lumet and co-screenwriters T.J. Mancini & Robert J. McCrea would have been tempted to play up the comedic aspects and the entire film would have turned into a “My Cousin Vinny” rehash. Instead, they treat the story in a low-key and realistic matter and allow the humor to unexpectedly rise from the occasion and blindside us. Other times, the court scenes are deadly serious and it reminds us once again that Lumet is one of the few filmmakers who can take a scene featuring an ordinary cross-examination, not one filled with hysterical tears or unexpected confessions, and make it come off as spellbinding as the most elaborate action sequences. Adding to the realism is his choice to fill most of the supporting roles with actors who may not be famous but who have a look of absolute authenticity to them–when we see these guys kibitizing outside of court, the scenes may not be necessary from a plot perspective but they add a lot of flavor to the proceedings.

As for Vin Diesel, his casting has caused some controversy from people who only see him as the monosyllabic thug from “XXX” and “Pitch Black,” not to mention the oddball toupee covering his famously bald head that was first seen when a clip from the film was shown during a tribute to Lumet at last year’s Oscars. However, Lumet has always had a shrewd eye for casting and must have been able to see beyond that and Diesel has rewarded his faith with a shrewd and inspired performance. Physically, he is still imposing enough to suggest a tough guy but there is a slightly gone-to-seed quality about him that also indicates a guy who is maybe slightly past his prime and realizes that he will probably never rise higher in his station in life. In the courtroom scenes, he does a good job of shifting gears from the goofier aspects of his character to the more serious ones so quickly and efficiently that we are always kept on our toes when he is around. Most intriguingly, he manages to quietly suggest that his goofy goombah persona is born out of a simple desire to be liked that all the money he has acquired over the years cannot possibly buy. (One bit, in which his co-defendants give him the cold shoulder at lunchtime, is perhaps the most strangely touching bit you will ever find in a movie about people who list icepicks as business expenses on their tax forms.)

Although Diesel’s character dominates virtually every scene, Lumet also gives the other performers room to shine as well. For example, Peter Dinklage, best-known to most of you for his wonderful performance in “The Station Agent,” is equally good here as Ben Klandis and his odd rapport with Diesel is so effective that I now find myself hoping that someone will have the wit and common sense to team them up again sometime in the future. Ron Silver is also quite good as the judge calmly presiding over the chaos and the mere presence of Alex Rocco, the one-time cheerleader-banging Moe Green himself, serves as a connection between this film and other classics of the genre. Most striking of all is Annabella Sciorra, who appears in exactly one scene, maybe five minutes long tops, as Jackie’s estranged wife and she makes her so vibrant and compelling that you can easily see how an entire separate movie could be built around her.

The one flaw with “Find Me Guilty” is the somewhat annoying and intrusive score that tries a little too hard at times (especially at the beginning and the end) to make things seem wacky and happy-go-lucky–a problem that has also infected the ad campaign, which makes it look more like a farcical romp than anything else. This is unfortunate because the film is a refreshingly smart and adult film instead the lame Mob-oriented comedy suggested by the ads. “Find Me Guilty” is a fascinating, amusing and occasionally touching docudrama that deserves its place among both the great courtroom and mobster films of recent years.

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