“Naked Singularity” – Unique [MOVIE REVIEW]

John Boyega as Casi in "Naked Singularity." Photo courtesy of SF Film.

John Boyega as Casi in “Naked Singularity.” Photo courtesy of SF Film.

“Naked Singularity” is an almost successful adaptation of the award-winning novel by Sergio De La Pava. If I say almost it is because the screenwriters, Chase Palmer (who also directed) and Dave Matthews, chose to try infusing the film with the surreal and metaphysical aspects of the novel, something that very few do successfully.

“Naked Singularity” is framed by a story of an impending, momentary collapse of the universe and underpinned by the philosophy of great thinkers like Voltaire and particularly Stephen Hawking who described naked singularity in black hole gravitational terms. Heady, inexplicable stuff that worked well in a book of 700 pages and only muddies what could have been an excellent film and instead is merely a good one. If I could explain the term “naked singularity” I would but even after scouring Wikipedia and Physics for Dummies, I can’t. Something to do with black holes that turn into themselves…maybe.

Linda Lavin as Judge Cymbeline in “Naked Singularity.” Photo courtesy of SF Film.

Philosophy aside, what we have that works, and works well, is the story of a public defender already overwhelmed in a system that favors expediency over justice. Casi, trying to get a fair result for his indigent, primarily minority clients repeatedly comes up against Judge Cymbeline, a harridan who seems to get pleasure out of harsh sentences and mistreating this particular public defender (PD). Casi, a truly decent fellow, seems to be outmaneuvered at every turn, including by his fellow PD Dane who foists off one last client, the scheming Lea.

Lea, working in the police impound lot, is a many-time offender whose only chance, as Casi points out, is to plead her charge down and serve a couple of years in prison. Thinking quickly, Lea has something to trade. Her latest loser boyfriend has involved her in a scheme that involves drugs and dollar signs. One of the cars in the lot has millions in heroin stashed inside and is due to be auctioned. Casi is certain that this will be an excellent bargaining chip with the NYPD and he’s right. They’ll drop charges against Lea if she helps them trap the buyer.

But as in any good heist film, Lea has other plans and begins juggling all the balls in the air so that she “cooperates” with the police, sets up a big payoff for herself, and escapes unscathed. Needless to say, all does not go as planned. And before you know it, the interested parties include the NYPD, Lea, her erstwhile boyfriend Craig, Dane, a Columbian cartel, and a cabal of Hasidic Jews.

Olivia Cooke as Lea in “Naked Singularity.” Photo courtesy of SF Film.

When the elements jell, “A Naked Singularity” is a fast-paced, often hilarious, heist movie with a heart. Again, this is a good movie, just not the great one it could have been. The difficulty with adapting books is that screenwriters are often unable to dissect what is doable on film versus what is doable on the page. A Naked Singularity, the book, mixed science fiction elements, physics, a drug heist, and a look at the failings of the criminal justice system, all within the framework of an impending upending of the universe. To try to explain the metaphysical aspects, Palmer used that formidably funny and counterintuitively intellectual actor Tim Blake Nelson as a character who would appear periodically to spout philosophy and explain cosmic events. His definition of what Stephen Hawking called “a naked singularity” was fleeting, and presumably accurate, and a clever stop-the-action moment. It contributed nothing to the film other than allowing Palmer and Matthews their moment of “Aren’t we clever and smart.” The book may have been able to integrate philosophy with criminal justice, an antithetical thought if ever there was one, while careening down a slope with a dead-bang drug heist movie, but the film seems overburdened by the physics. It must be said that Palmer and Matthews came up with the Rabbinical drug dealers whose leader is called The Golem. Sheer genius, that.

Regardless of my mixed feelings, the cast carries this film to the finish line. I doubt whether Linda Lavin as Judge Cymbeline, has had as much fun in recent years playing such a nasty bitch. Ed Skrein as Craig, Lea’s boyfriend who has masterminded the drug heist, is believably threatening in a visceral sense while also being moronic.

Olivia Cooke (“The Sound of Metal,” “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl”) as Lea is a true star. Her character is a cliché, the under class girl with the major ambitions who always makes the wrong choice and picks the wrong guy. Over and over and over again. She’s the embodiment of the Albert Einstein quote: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Cooke sells it like it’s an original.

But the real reason to see this movie is John Boyega (“Star Wars: Episodes VII, VIII, and IX,” “Small Axe: Red, White and Blue”) as Casi. Boyega has a warmth and depth that make him compelling as the PD who still believes in justice. It is impossible not to watch him and be absorbed by the idealistic and optimistic decency he exudes. Imagine my surprise to discover that he was a theatrically trained British actor with credits at the National Theatre and The Old Vic. And yet, again, why should that come as a surprise given the depth and believability he infused in the role of Casi.

“Naked Singularity,” though overly ambitious in the metaphysical sense, succeeds as a heist movie (pay attention to some of the “French Connection”-inspired chase scenes filmed by ace cinematographer Andrj Parekh) and morality (or immorality) play on the antithetical idea of justice. It has enough going for it that you can almost overlook the ill-fitting pieces of the puzzle.

Opening August 13 at the Landmark Theatre in Westwood and On Demand.

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