Vin Diesel's performance in "Find Me Guilty", the new Sidney Lumet film, is just such an occurrence.
First of all, `Vin Diesel' (?) is the star of the new Sidney Lumet film? What did Sidney Lumet see that the rest of us couldn't? Was his performance in "The Pacifier" the key? Who's next? Ryan Reynolds?
Based on a true story, "Find Me Guilty" is the story of Giacomo "Fat Jack" DiNorscio (Diesel), a mobster who gets arrested during a drug sting. The Feds use this as leverage to try to get DiNorscio to rat out the head of his `family', Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) and the rest of the lieutenants and made men in his mob family, men he has grown up with his entire life. DiNorscio holds his tongue. The District Attorney (Linus Roache) moves ahead with the RICO trial, the largest of its kind to date. DiNorscio decides to defend himself, despite the advice of Judge Finestein (Ron Silver) and Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage, "The Station Agent"), the attorney representing one of his friends. As the long trial progresses, DiNorscio frequently addresses the jury, telling them he's a `Gagster', not a Gangster. His defense is, if anything, unique.
"Guilty" depicts a series of key moments during this landmark trial, which took place in New York, over the course of almost two years. From the beginning of the trial, as we watch the defendants and their lawyers crowd around three large conference tables in the courtroom, to an increasingly desperate District Attorney (Linus Roache), we realize this trial will not be typical. Indeed, it lasts almost twice as long as originally predicted because the District Attorney calls dozens of witnesses and presents hundreds of pieces of evidence.
But the key moments we watch all involve DiNorscio. He is our entry into this world. It is through his eyes we are to witness this trial, through his actions that we will experience the proceedings. To do this, we have to get to know and, to a certain extent, like DiNorscio. We have to at least understand him. The success of this depends on two people. Diesel and Lumet. Both are successful to a degree. Both let us down to a certain extent.
This is Diesel's best performance yet. That's a mixed compliment. His previous work has all been about being an `Action Movie Star'. He hasn't spent a lot of time on screen building characters, making us care about real people. "Guilty" marks a departure for him. It is evident that he is trying very hard to actually make us believe he is DiNorscio. Adding a toupee and 30 pounds, Diesel looks like an out of shape mobster, but he doesn't really create a three-dimensional personality. We hear him say that he is a `gagster', not a `gangster' more than once, but we don't really understand why this is important to his character. Virtually the entire film takes place in the courtroom or his jail cell, so this allows little time for him to interact with his family or his friends. The brief moments he has with others are interesting; a scene between Diesel and Annabella Sciorra, who plays his ex-wife, is memorable. There is also a quick scene between Diesel and Rocco which helps to set-up the ongoing conflict. Yes, DiNorscio is jeopardizing the entire group, but Rocco's character makes a statement during this scene about never liking Diesel's character. Why? Why is DiNorscio so blind to this feeling? He thinks they are all fine and dandy. But he also has a daughter and she disappears for long stretches of time.
Lumet is a great director, but he is a little off of his game here. A few early scenes help to establish a bit of Diesel's character in the outside world, but the majority of the film is about the trial, which means DiNorscio is either in a courtroom or in a jail cell. This cuts him off from the world; his daughter, his mother, his father, his ex-wife. It cuts him off from us. There is an extended bit about how DiNorscio needs an easy chair to sleep. It almost seems like an odd thing to include because it really has no bearing on the story, the lack of sleep doesn't seem to affect him or the trial. Lumet and his writers seem so intent on depicting various parts of the trial that any part of the outside life of these characters is pushed aside.
When we only focus on the court trial, we have to be pretty mesmerized by the proceedings. Frankly, the whole point of watching the proceedings seems to be to make us like DiNorscio, to watch him joke around and attempt to worm his way out of the situation. It works for a while, but when this becomes the sole reason for the film, it is a let down. We need more substance from the outside world to give the court scenes more resonance and because the court scenes aren't memorable, we are left with watching a theatrical exercise.
"Guilty" suffers greatly from a lack of outside influence. We don't see enough of his outside life, or learn enough about who he is to make the story interesting or memorable.
The one thing we take from "Guilty" is that Diesel may actually become a good actor, under the guidance of the right directors.