“I am a public defender,” says Casi (John Boyega) in Chase Palmer’s directorial feature debut Naked Singularity. “There are 15,000 of me for the 10.5 million people arrested last year in America.” Therein lies the problem. A confident Casi, striding through the imposing halls of a New York City courthouse, ready to take on the judge, the system, and the world, believes he has the solution. But Naked Singularity isn’t a typical courtroom drama. It’s a heist flick, a sci-fi romp, and a message film all rolled into one. And it’s a pretty terrible example of all three genres.
Adapted by Palmer (co-writer on Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It) and David Matthews (Them and Narcos) from Sergio De La Pava’s novel A Naked Singularity, Palmer’s film wastes a talented topline cast and an impressive central premise — a critique of the criminal justice system — that crumbles due to crass visuals and an underwritten ending.
The courtroom drama opens with Casi, an overzealous public defender with matted, pulled-back hair, and a naff dime-store suit pulling every trick in the book to uphold his clients’ rights. But Casi isn’t slick. His plan to have a non-English-speaking Chinese defendant nod along to a not-guilty plea, if not the defendant will have to wait for a Chinese-langage lawyer, leaving him in jail for longer. He also tries to spring a Black client from prison based on poor health, when the prisoner has never been healthier. Both quickly backfire on him once his subterfuge is revealed.
In some sense, he’s similar to Denzel Washington’s quirky lead character in Dan Gilroy’s 2017 neo-noir Roman J. Israel, Esq. Casi rails against the prejudiced system of plea bargaining, which preys on poorer people of color without the means to test a jury trial. He also has terrible people skills. He often participates in verbal shouting matches against an apathetic judge (Linda Lavin), purposefully alienating himself from her. And he sacrifices everything for his clients, even putting himself in danger of disbarment following a passive-aggressive debate with the aforementioned judge.
Naked Singularity becomes difficult to follow once Palmer loops in his disparate genres. For instance, the heist subplot: One of Casi’s former clients, the fast-talking Lea (Olivia Cooke), works at an impound where Craig (Ed Skrein), a skeezy underworld grunt, comes looking for a towed black Lincoln Navigator packed with cocaine. As Lea tries to walk the fine line between getting hefty bribe from Craig and just provoking him to murder her, Casi teams with his fellow cokehead public defendant Dave (Bill Skarsgård) to rob the drug dealers.
Stilted dialogue weighs down this intriguing premise. As a message film, Naked Singularity relies on Boyega delivering long-winded, hamfisted diatribes concerning the ills of the criminal justice system. It’s difficult to listen to even his most salient points — for instance, about how the system isn’t rehabilitative, but debilitating — without snoozing. Making the subject matter heavier is the impending end of the world. Casi’s physicist flatmate Angus (Tim Blake Nelson) predicts that their present dimension will implode, and the signs are everywhere: the temperature on an office building reads 150 degrees Fahrenheit, Casi levitates, rolling blackouts are plunging the hot summer city into darkness. And a countdown graphic reminds us of the approaching doomsday. One of these threads would make a compelling flick. When combined, they’re unwieldy.
That cumbersomeness bleeds into Andrij Parekh’s cinematography, an aesthetic mish-mash of a brown 1970s courtroom patina and modern neon club lights. It also affects the central performances. No one in this movie speaks like a real person. No one makes a believable decision. That wouldn’t be an issue if the movie’s tone wasn’t caught between grounded realism and flights of fancy. Boyega, Cooke, Skarsgård and Nelson struggle to find firm footing on this ever-shifting ground, specifically when a romance develops between the awkward Casi and the street-smart Lea, leading to a pairing far more far-fetched than a crashing dimension.
It’s difficult to think of anything that exactly works in Naked Singularity. Even the villain muddles the message the movie wants to send. Craig is merely a goon for the Golem (Kyle Mooney), an alias referring to the head of a Hasidic Jewish mob. Initially the joke slams. Especially when Palmer introduces this three-piece-suit-wearing gang in a sequence with music-video aesthetics: The gangsters do a wide-stance pose as bombastic beats shower upon them. That gag turns ugly when their hideout is raided, and these Jewish men are standing over piles of money.
Palmer’s high-concept sci-fi isn’t as thought-provoking as its references to Voltaire’s Candide would indicate. The philosophical beats groan under the narrative’s overburdened weight. The heist component falls flat because Casi and Dave’s plan is intelligible. Without a big-name case to center viewers’ attention, the courtroom drama lacks, well, drama. And the film’s primary focus — how can Casi fix a stacked system? — isn’t approached with any intelligence. Considering the bold premise outlined by Palmer, which invited the chance for bolder choices, the lackluster ending leaves one wanting. Palmer’s Naked Similarity is a dilettante movie, raising plenty of important questions while providing little intellectual rigor, and even less action-packed excitement.
Naked Singularity opens in limited release on August 6, and in wide release and on-demand services on August 13.