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Review: Naked Singularity – “There are so many elements at play”

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A young lawyer, a public defender, takes the cases of those no one wants to defend.  He’s overworked, and underpaid.  As he states early on he’s one of the “Only 15,000 public defenders for the 10.5 million people arrested last year.”  He’s frustrated and disheartened by the people he sees go to jail time and time again, part of a failed system, because when it comes to the criminal justice system, “Once you fall in, it’s almost impossible to get out.”  That applies not only to his clients, but also to him.  Based on the PEN prize-winning novel, A Naked Singularity, written by former Manhattan District Attorney Sergio De La Pava, the film version drops the ‘A,’ instead going simply by Naked Singularity, and is brought to the screen by first time feature director Chase Palmer.

Casi (John Boyega) is the aforementioned public defence attorney.  He is cynical of the system he’s working in, the ideals he graduated with getting swiftly erased by a lack of justice within the courtrooms in which he argues.  Never is this more true than when he appears before one particular judge (Linda Lavin) with whom he has endless confrontations trying to argue common sense and redemption for his clients as opposed to the jail sentences she imparts.  A former client of his, Lea (Olivia Cooke) is also victim to the injustice of the system, stuck in a job at an impound car lot with a boss who is continually harassing her.  She can’t escape due to a previous minor drug charge on her criminal record.  Casi and Lea are on opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both feel just as trapped.

After an encounter with a smalltime criminal, Craig (Ed Skrein), Lea decides to try and buy her way into a brand new life by helping him in his current scheme.  His plan involves winning a specific impounded car at auction that just happens to be hiding a large stash of drugs once owned by a Mexican cartel.  When Lea is picked up by police, Casi gets involved in trying to broker a deal to make her an informant to the police in this transaction.  But, with the world seemingly closing in on him, in both a literal and figurative sense, Casi is left with the decision to play by the books, or to become involved with the heist as as an attempt to serve justice another way.

Chase Palmer (who was a writer on the screenplay for 2017’s IT) adapts the novel along with David Matthews.  I haven’t yet read the source material, but my understanding is that the 700 page novel was always going to be a challenge to bring to the screen.  While it wanted to bring out the injustice found within the criminal justice system, De La Pava also delved into quantum physics and black holes.  Palmer does his best to find these elements, but the genre bending sci-fi elements don’t blend well, especially in a 90 minute portrayal of such a long novel.  There isn’t enough time to develop them, despite the introduction of Tim Blake Nelson as Casi’s eccentric neighbour who is able to explain to the audience what a singularity actually is about halfway through.

A generally strong cast is led by the typically charismatic John Boyega who trades his lightsaber for a samurai sword (and the film’s poster really seems to lean on that connection).  We never get to know much about his character, save for his general disdain for the system her serves.  However, his back and forth interactions with Lavin are particularly enjoyable.  Olivia Cooke gets a much different role than her supporting turn in Sound of Metal, and she adds a bit of grit and reality to this fantastical journey.  Casi’s fellow defence attorney friend Dane is played by the likeable Bill Skarsgård, serving up this comedic role in a more exaggerated manner than the film’s final feel required.  He just seems misplaced, like he was included to change the tone here, or perhaps that the film itself was once meant to be different.

And that’s where I would say things really stumble – there are so many elements at play here.  It’s a courtroom drama, then it’s a heist film, it’s comedic, and then Boyega is floating and the world is vibrating amongst some vague physics.  Palmer as writer and director really could have leaned into the seemingly bizarre nature of the source material but instead seemed to pump the brakes to try and make this unconventional tale much more traditional.  While there’s enough here to make the film watchable, it’s more than likely going to encourage you to pick up the book to see what you’ve missed and get the full story.

Naked Singularity arrives in theatres August 6th, and On Demand August 13th.

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