|Vincenzo Gasolina and Tyrion Lannister. Boosh.|
With a handful of notable exceptions, Sidney Lumet's career as a director was characterized by his tendency to make very good movies that it never occurred to anyone to watch. This, to be clear, was never Mr. Lumet's fault. (Well, almost never: Q&A was terrible.) It was merely a function of his valuing character and story over all else, his refusal to (intentionally) lean on melodrama for cheap effect, and—maybe most important—the humility with which he carried himself personally. If you want people running around sucking your dick about what a genius you are, you need to plant the seeds by acting like one. Of course, this can backfire if you aren't one. But Sidney Lumet never seemed to care about that, always talked up the importance of the work above all else and the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, and as a result he never won a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary one when he was old, and his speech was pure elegance and class; Sidney Lumet was a man among men, believe) and even among the list of all-time classics he directed, all are associated primarily with their leading actors. His careful preparation, empathy, and humble commitment to the work above his own personal glory (and a number of other things associated with being awesome, surely) led to a vast array of actors giving either the best or one of the best performances of their careers working under Lumet's watch, among them Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, River Phoenix, and many many others. So too, in the second-to-last movie Sidney Lumet would ever direct, did Vin Diesel, in Find Me Guilty.
That's right, Vincenzo Gasolina himself. And it's not like “oh, sure, wow, he turned in a better performance than The Fast and the Furious, xXx, and The fuckin' Pacifier, big whoop.” Vincenzo's amaaaaazing in Find Me Guilty. He's out of his mind good in this. There's a grand total of one moment the entire picture when he's not perfect, and that moment is like two seconds in the Annabella Sciorra scene an hour or so in, even then it's just a moment of his composure cracking because he doesn't know what to do with his hands, and even then it's something you can rationalize as “well, maybe it's not that Vin doesn't know what to do with his hands, maybe it's Jackie” except, sorry, it is Vin. But that's okay. The whole rest of the picture Vincenzo's in this fucking wig looking like Jerry Orbach except radiating Movie Star, and it's like “Holy shit, Vincenzo has star power even when he's not flexing his guns driving two hundred miles an hour doing sex with Asia Argento?” If ever there was a moment for Sidney Lumet to pop his collar and be like “Oh yes that's right, y'all,” it's this. Making Robert Duvall look good is one thing. Making Vincenzo Gasolina look like something other than a guy who throws grenades by flexing his biceps is another matter entirely. It's not that Lumet waved a magic wand and turned Vincenzo into a good actor, it's that he knew enough about what acting actually is and was forward-thinking enough to say “I'm going to make a picture with Vin Diesel playing the lead where nothing blows up and he never drives a car.” And he did. And it's a massive amount of fun.
Based on a true story (and purporting to consist to great degree of actual court transcriptions), Find Me Guilty is the story of Jackie DiNorscio (Vincenzo), a wiseguy from the Dirty Jerz whose fuckhead cousin tries to clip him, unsuccessfully. Once he recovers, Jackie's luck takes another turn for the shitty when he gets pinched trying to buy a suitcase full of coke from an undercover cop. Not to mention, he has racketeering charges hanging over him. The US Attorney's office (represented by oily Linus Roache, who did an NY/NJ area accent so well I had to check who he was, only to be like “Holy balls, that's Linus Roache?”) swoops in and offers Jackie a deal if he rolls over on The Boys, only Jackie's a stand-up guy and won't hold with such rubbish. He tells the US Attorney, “Hey, you got a brother? Fuck him, too.” And thus Jackie and practically everybody he knows and has worked with go on trial.
The trial, a massive clusterfuck (it would go on to be the longest criminal trial in American history), is the bulk of the movie. Judge Sidney Finestein (Ron Silver, who is pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-fuckin-floor great in this, in a reminder of how great he could be when not simply noshing on scenery in an exploitation movie for a paycheck) does his best to keep all twenty-something defendants and their respective lawyers (the de facto leader of whom is played by the mighty Peter Dinklage, who rules beyond the capacity of the English language to describe) in line. And he'd have done so perfectly if not for the monkey wrench of Jackie deciding to defend himself. Jackie's wildly inappropriate, blithely ignorant of proper procedure, yet charming debut as defense counsel completely overwhelms the entire trial.
Storywise, that's all there is to Find Me Guilty. The narrative has occasional telling-rather-than-showing problems with conveying the massive amount of time over which the trial took place, and despite being based on a true story elements of it are really, really farfetched. It's the kind of material that in the hands of anyone other than an absolute master—and I really think it's time we start putting Lumet in with the all-time greats, if we aren't already—would be ridiculous nonsense. But in Lumet's hands, it's a delightful bit of entertainment.
Beyond the performances, which are simply tremendous, with countless beautiful little human moments, Lumet's direction is pristine classicism, with meticulous framing, long takes, actual medium and long shots that aren't either establishing shots or panoramic landscapes, and invisible edits. In spite of this it never feels conservative, or an example of a relic of a bygone era clinging to an outmoded way of working because it's all he knows. I feel like kicking myself in the balls for even suggesting such a thing. No, this is a director who trusts his actors to be all the flash and dash the picture needs. That trust derives from careful preparation, years of experience, and the confidence those combine to create. Maybe the result only seems so good because no one makes classical American cinema anymore, but it's still a wonderful little movie.
It's a movie that's been done wrong by history, too. Due to one of the absolute worst marketing campaigns in the history of human endeavor—like, “Kilgore Trout's SF appearing in porno magazines” level bad marketing—Find Me Guilty was gone from theaters before anyone knew it had come out, and was a non-factor in 2006's Oscar race, which I mean yeah I know, “Oscars? blow me,” but imagine if Harvey Weinstein is running the picture's campaign. Suddenly we've got Sidney Lumet going up against Marty Scorsese for Best Director, with both of them trying for their first. You've got Vincenzo getting a nom against Forest Whitaker; I mean, Forest Whitaker still would have won, but then we get the Fast and Furious trailer hailing “ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE VIN DIESEL.....and paul walker” a couple years later, which would have been considerably lulzier than Vincenzo returning to the franchise having failed elsewhere.
Anyway. Fuck the business. Find Me Guilty still exists, and can be watched. And I'm here to say, with all the authority given a random asshole on the internet with Proustian Tourette's that it goddamn well should be. So there. At the very least, people fiending for a Game of Thrones fix should watch this to get a hit of some Dinklage. Or if you feel like winning a bet with a friend of yours who refuses to believe that Vin Diesel could ever look like Jerry Orbach. Or, if you just want to plain want to see a good movie. Sidney Lumet was the truth, ladies and gentlemen. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.