What a bizarre, loopy and over-the-top environmental justice drama “The Devil has a Name” is.
It’s pitched like a fable, with vampy, larger-than-life villainy, outragous, out-in-the-open crimes and intimidation, a plucky “little man” hero and a crusading lawyer who has reached the bladder control years of his practice.
“Inspired by a true story,” it’s as much a cause as a movie, which drew Edward James Olmos to it. He directs and co-stars in this story of a Bakersfield area almond grower at war with the Big Oil company that poisoned his groves and his life.
Olmos is on safe ground — well, safer ground — when he confines his story to the widowed grower (David Strathairn), his farm manager/pal (Olmos) and their rising alarm at what’s happening to their trees. Even the time we spend with the hard-drinking oil woman (Kate Bosworth) who sips from her flask’s cup (ladylike) while exchanging testy epithets with her board (Alfred Molina is the venomous chair) is at least entertaining.
“Houston city is WIN city,” Molina’s chairman rages, in between tasteless JFK-killed-in-Texas threats. “MAMA didn’t bring home the W!”
But Shore Oil heiress Gigi (Bosworth) has a good excuse, setting up the tale to be told in flashback.
“There are 53 different kinds of nuts in the world. (Strathairn’s farmer) was one of them.”
That tone is what Olmos tries to sustain throughout the film. But the director/co-star’s attempts at wizened Hispanic whimsy clashes with Strathairn’s widowed dirt-farmer reality. And then this violent, menacing “heavy” from the company (Pablo Schreiber, cartoonishly evil) shows up, and the formerly-famous crusading lawyer (Martin Sheen) who takes on the case.
“The Devil Has a Name” stops staggering down that fine line between thriller and spoof and takes a header straight into the ditch.
The long flashback here is about how that farmer, Fred Stern (Strathairn), a grieving widower who never got to buy a boat and sail the world with his late wife, decides to take on Shore Oil, which uses a local “farmboy turned advertising hack” (Haley Joel Osment, over-acting as if there was a gun to his head) to lowball him into selling his land.
We follow two points of view. Fred an his friend and farm manager Santiago’s comically quarrelsome (wrestling, even) relationship and Fred’s decision to go to court, and the glowering drunk Gigi staring down her board and Molina.
Fred’s annoyance turns into storm-out-of-the-shower outrage in a flash. Big Oil escalates matters into intimidation and threats in a bigger flash.
The elderly lawyer asks for a bathroom break.
“I will NOT have grandstanding in my courtroom,” the judge bellows. The trial is nothing but grandstanding and eye-rolling double-crosses.
And none of it adds up to anything with urgency about it, a sense of triumph or defeat or a story coherent enough to engage the viewer.
“Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation,” Dr. Albert Schweitzer said. He wasn’t a critic complaining about a movie. But he could have been.
MPAA Rating: R (Some Sexual Material|Brief Violence|Language|Drug Use)
Cast: David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Edward James Olmos, Pablo Schreiber, Haley Joel Osment, Katie Aselton and Alfred Molina.
Credits: Edward James Olmos, script by Robert McEveety. An eOne/Momentum release.
Running time: 1:37