If the title of the film Naked Singularity piques your interest, a brief investigation via your favorite search engine will reveal that it’s a term used in astrophysics to describe a theoretical phenomenon that may exist in black holes. But since this is a film review and not an entry for a layperson’s guide to the universe, it’s more important to figure out the rationale behind this film about a down and out public defender and the frustrations he faces as he does his duty in the nether regions of New York City’s crowded justice system. Briefly, but don’t quote me, a naked singularity is a theoretical construct that would be an anomaly in what is generally known about black holes: Time and space dissolve, and matter itself becomes invisible. The idea behind a naked singularity is that a black hole might rotate fast enough so that its innate properties could vanish, and a naked singularity would form: The result would mean the existence of an object that could behave in ways the known universe would not. Being free of the time/space constraints of the universe, a naked singularity would allow someone to travel to any point in the past. Not something you’d want to play around with even if you’re Jeff Bezoes or Richard Branson.
The film is loosely based on the novel of the same name — a long, complex work of fiction that Chase Palmer, David Matthews, and Sergio de la Palma (the author of the novel upon which the movie is based) attempt to modify and adapt for the screen. It’s a valiant attempt, but squeezing a long, complex novel into a straightforward narrative film means getting rid of a lot of the context, and most viewers will be wondering where and when the film will break out of its genre conventions. John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) displays the requisite futility of someone caught in a dead-end job (both literally and figuratively), but it’s not enough to form a nucleus for a story. It could be that he is the moral conscience of the mysterious impenetrable universe of a dysfunctional justice system, and hence makes it visible. But it’s not a major revelation. His obstacles are typical of those one would find in a job as a hapless public defender. We don’t really need him to reveal them.
So, what does this bit of theoretical physics used as the film’s title have to do with our frustrated P.D. (public defender)? John Boyega does his best to portray a disillusioned young lawyer up against a cold-hearted legal system — disinterested judges, sardonic prosecutors, confused defendants. However, the film never breaks out of the conventions of its plot line. You’ve seen the story before: On TV shows, feature films, documentary exposés. Naked Singularity doesn’t add much to the genre. Its story moves too slowly, and the characters are too wan. By the time the plot thickens, it’s almost too late to hold the viewer’s interest.
If you’ve seen episodes of “Law and Order,” or any number of Sidney Lumet features, you will probably recognize the film’s setting: Downtown New York City, where the stark municipal buildings are located. We’ve seen the seedy bars before, and the downscale New York City apartments that low-salaried public servants are able to afford. A brief look at the film’s credits will clue you in to the fact Dick Wolf, the creator of “Law and Order,” is the producer, so the set up and theme of the film shouldn’t come as a surprise.
This isn’t to say the film goes nowhere. Casi (the word means “almost” in Spanish), nearly devolves into another human molecule in the criminal justice universe until he has the opportunity to strike it rich financially with the simple philosophy of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” But the film’s set up — driven by several numbing courtroom scenes between Casi and a heartless “can’t wait for retirement” judge (Linda Lavin, “How to Be a Latin Lover”) isn’t enough to carry the set up for Casi’s descent into the criminal maelstrom.
The film does hold some promise of a “fight the machine” showdown, but it’s obvious the machine will win out. It always does, after all. Olivia Cooke (“Little Fish”) plays an equally sardonic Lea, a municipal worker who throws a carrot into the P.D.’s world and an even more sketchy crook, her partner in crime, a drug dealer named Craig (Ed Skrein, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), both of whom are looking for an inside man to pull off a heist. They both find a perfect candidate in Casi, or rather they think they do.
There is also an ongoing subplot involving the P.D. and a science-obsessed neighbor named Angus (Tim Blake Nelson, “The Vanishing of Sidney Hall”). Angus serves to put some meat on the theoretical concept of naked singularity in an effort to flesh out the story in order to provide some symbolic weight to complement the action. Unfortunately, what is a promising addition to the storyline never gets woven into the main narrative thrust. Naked Singularity bravely tries to mix genres — giving the finger to a corrupt system, taking a quantum leap to free oneself from a doomed career choice, and tying them both to cosmic, science-fiction themes. But there’s just too much to cover in a standard-length feature film. Perhaps a film of epic proportions could handle the theme more competently. To sum up the problem with the film in literary terms, Naked Singularity evolves into a short story from James Joyce’s “Dubliners” when its complex issues would be better served by that same author’s “Ulysses.”