Fine Me Guilty

March, 2006, Comedy

    Find Me Guilty

Sidney Lumet has directed some of Hollywood's best known actors in films which have displayed their respective talents exceptionally well, (Henry Fonda in Fail Safe, Al Pacino in Serpico, Sean Connery in The Hill, Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, William Holden in Network etc.) and he's no stranger to that success in courtroom dramas either, as Paul Newman's turn in The Verdict can attest. So when this octogenarian, with decades of memorable work to his credit, takes a chance on Vin Diesel, (an actor known primarily for his Rambo-esque turns in action fodder like xXx and The Fast & The Furious) what should audiences expect? Not Macbeth perhaps, but something with real bite that comments on the social issues with which Lumet's work has so often been associated. Well maybe, but not here, even with a premise based on a real-life racketeering case of 20 years ago. Lumet, Diesel and this material do not a potent combination make.

The project must have looked wonderful on paper; a fact-based script employing the actual testimony of a New Jersey Mafia crime family indicted for criminal conspiracy and a verdict as stunning as the courtroom tactics employed by Jack DiNorscio, (Diesel) a low-ranking lieutenant in this crew who improbably acted as his own attorney. Working with a Pillsbury Doughboy physique and an authentically seedy hairpiece, Diesel plays DiNorscio as a thug whose warm-hearted regard for his low-life friends somehow outweighs, in Lumet's mind at least, a lifetime of crime in narcotics, loan-sharking and other illegal activities the screenplay never bothers to identify. 

Diesel's presentation of goomba humor is fitfully amusing in the manner of salacious Las Vegas comics and Ron Silver's performance as the presiding judge makes that portion of the film devoted to the case's myriad legal strategies both intriguing and sympathetic. But Lumet & co-screenwriter T.J. Mancini stack the deck in those scenes which take place outside the courtroom; the prosecuting attorney is presented as a pompous, racist ass and DiNorscio as a man remarkably insightful about he pain he's caused his family and sanguine about the 20 years he's already serving on a previously-tried narcotics charge. Lumet's sympathies are so skewed the movie quickly evolves into yet another yarn about outlaw worship, reminiscent of the bad-but-oh-so-colorful characters created by Daymon Runyon.

It's too bad Lumet didn't take a harder look at the whole notion of criminal conspiracy charges; trying people for the crime of simply hanging out with habitual offenders. Guilt by association is much in the public's mind just now, as the aftermath of "The War on Terror" so painfully attests; with more courage, this film could have delivered some interesting observations about over-zealous prosecutions and unintended results they can spawn. If Lumet had spent his energies analyzing why, in this case, the government spent nearly two years presenting its hopelessly complex case and how the sheer numbing level of detail might impact the jury in reaching their decision, Find Me Guilty might have been an interesting example of legal hubris in America's war on organized crime. Instead, Lumet makes a hero out of a career criminal because he didn't rat out his friends, implying that loyalty is far nobler than something as prosaic as regard for the law. 

If it was the director's intent to mock governmental officials in their attempt to get criminal convictions based merely on guilt by association, there might be some justification for the one-sidedness of Lumet's film. But glorifying a thuggish windbag simply bores Lumet’s audience while condescending to its intelligence.         

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