Naked Singularity Synopsis: Casi (John Boyega) is a promising young New York City public defender whose idealism is beginning to crack under the daily injustices of the very justice system he’s trying to make right. Doubting all he has worked for and seeing signs of the universe collapsing all around him, he is pulled into a dangerous, high-stakes drug heist by an unpredictable former client (Olivia Cooke) to beat the broken system at its own game.
Based on lawyer-turned author Sergio De La Pava’s singular cult novel, Naked Singularity aims for high marks from an ambition standpoint. The long-awaited adaptation mixes critical insights on the corrupt justice system with a surrealist, crime-thriller edge. In the case of Chase Palmer’s directorial debut, Naked Singularity’s intriguing genre fusion turns into a bloated mess of genre confusion.
I haven’t read De La Pava’s beloved text, but this adaption occasionally highlights the meaningful undertones that made his work beloved. Amidst all the chaotic turns, Naked Singularity aims its sights on the corporatized justice department. The cynical system callously funnels people in and out of prison sentences without much consideration, leaving both prisoners and ex-convicts stuck in a hopeless cycle of frustration. The film certainly lays the conceit on thick with boisterous stylistic cues and overwritten speeches. However, the energetic delivery does bring some much-needed vitriol to the age-old conversation.
A game cast also elevates the proceedings. John Boyega imbues conviction and dynamism into our down-on-his-luck protagonist Casi. Even as the narrative drives off the rails, Boyega provides a sturdy and deeply affable presence for audiences to follow behind. Olivia Cooke is served the most thankless role of the bunch as Lena – an ex-convict stuck acting as the film’s damsel in distress. Through the painful cliches and over-the-top accent, Cooke’s endless talent still finds a bright, humanistic angle to convey Lena’s toiling pains. Side players Bill Skarsgård, Ed Skrein, and a drugged-out Tim Blake Nelson also make for welcomed additions. The trio has a blast infusing over-the-top camp into their thinly-conceived roles.
While too chaotic and shaggy to hate, Naked Singularity doesn’t do justice by its source material’s cerebral undertones. Palmer directs without a clear roadmap, incorporating a myriad of genre influences that never quite connect. The crime thriller portions offer edgy posturing without providing a driving hook, while any attempt at sincere drama stumble closer to TV-level melodrama. I give Palmer credit for attempting an unhinged visual style to match the character’s manic journey. It’s just doesn’t translate into a dynamic onscreen presence.
Naked Singularity’s stumbles are similar to most failed adaptations. Palmer and co-writer Dave Matthews strip the material of any real bite, misguidedly streamlining a sprawling 700-word novel into a breathless 93-minute experience. It ends up not having much to say despite possessing a genuinely meaningful core. Instead of building a meaningful thesis, the film seemingly forgets its deeper purpose until it’s too little too late.
An assured adaptation of Naked Singularity could provide a timely descent into America’s unfair playing field. Regrettably, Chase’s well-meaning effort never reaches the material’s apex.
Naked Singularity opens in select theaters on August 6th before premiering on VOD on August 13th.
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