Movie Review: A Heist runs up against End Times — “Naked Singularity”

“Naked Singularity,” Chase Palmer’s film of lawyer/novelist Sergio De La Pava’s book, makes a single self-conscious reference to “The French Connection.”

A New Yorker in the film notes the criminal enterprise that involves smuggling drugs inside a Lincoln and describes it as “some Popeye Doyle level s–t,” a similarity that most any film buff has picked up on already.

William Friedkin’s “French” masterpiece was a methodical, blunt-force trauma account of a drug investigation and bust with a soul-sucking suggestion that the “real” criminals, the rich and the well-connected, never get caught.

“Naked Singularity” makes exactly the same point in a far more clumsy, ham-handed fashion. Its “two systems of justice” parable is coated in a sense of doom, of multiverses playing out their plots and signs of the “End Times” all around for the conspiracy-minded and those willing to connect the dots.

Power outages, futility rising up in the throats of one and all with a growing dread, a “justice” system rightly regarded as malevolent and uncaring by its practitioners, especially idealistically cynical public defender Casi (John Boyega) as he deals with a prickly, pedantic and dispassionate judge (Linda Lavin) — this is Dystopia Today.

But this “singularity” business, ranted about by Casi’s chalkboard-scribbling scientist/landlord (Tim Blake Nelson)? Strictly an afterthought, dabbled in just enough to suggest more was in an earlier draft of the script or a flabbier, even less coherent cut of the film.

We’re starting to “see the unseeable” Angus the scientist sputters, a “ripple” in time and space that shows “the bindings of our universe are unraveling.”

Damn. Sounds fascinating. And no, that’s not what this movie is about, not even with “chapters” counting down to The End — “8 Days until the Collapse,” and the like.

Olivia Cooke dresses down and Tinders-up as Lea, a window clerk with the city’s impounded vehicle lot. That’s where the Lincoln Navigator has been towed. A rough-trade fellow (Ed Skrein) brazenly offers her a bribe to pick the SUV up, but she doesn’t bite.

That doesn’t mean she won’t right-swipe the pushy, flattering hunk “Craig” on her next outing at the club. And that doesn’t mean she won’t hear his Lincoln loot pitch in full as a sort of pillow talk.

Lea’s entanglement leads back to her onetime PD, Casi. And Casi’s got a corrupt colleague (Bill Skarsgård) who knows about the Lincoln, the drugs, the “cartel” involved and the amount of money about to change hands. He’s more than happy to mix Casi up in getting their hands on that.

The drug deal may reference “The French Connection,” but the courtroom scenes pay homage to any drama (“And Justice for All…”) where an upstart lawyer gets mouthy enough to be disbarred by his least favorite judge.

“Sending a man to jail because he isn’t dying fast enough seems petulant, even for you, your honor.”

Lavin’s cyanide-laced “and the Constitution survives another day” retorts suggest somebody resigned to being a cog in “the machine,” and willing to erase anyone trying to throw a spanner into the works.

The “singularity” stuff pops up here and there as the clumsy but thorough Craig points to a picture of Queen Elizabeth and identifies her “reptiloid eyes” as amusing proof that SOMEthing is going on. “Saturday Night Live’s” Kyle Mooney headlines another seeming digression from the timeline. Let’s just say his character heads another “consortium” mixed up in this, and that he wears Payot in this role.

Boyega impresses as a sleepless, manic young man bent on reforming this system with hustles, work-arounds and off-the-record advice to clients. Cooke is just recognizable enough in big hair, long black fingernails and New York “bureaucratic functionary” indifference in her eyes. She sort of pulls off this wrong-side-of-the-legal-system character with all the character failings included.

But as “Naked Singularity” lurches through its countdown, even the stars seem a little lost in what they’re acting out and how it fits in what many of us would agree is the worst version of “the best of all possible worlds” that everyone is trapped in.

Even Spiderverse-savvy Spiderman might consider this singularly confusing, a botched effort to say something scientific-sound and profound in a story that’s basically a lawyer-novelist riffing on “The French Connection,” and doing it badly.

MPA Rating: R for language throughout, some violence, sexual references and drug use

Cast: John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård, Ed Skrein, Linda Lavin, Kyle Mooney and Tim Black Nelson.

Credits: Directed by Chase Palmer, script by Chase Palmer and David Matthews, based on the novel by Sergio De La Pava. A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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