The uniquely underwhelming sci-fi lawyer drama “Naked Singularity” is a weird mashup of ill-fitting genre tropes and quarter-cooked ideas about social justice and alternate realities.
Adapted from Sergio De La Pava’s novel, “Naked Singularity” boils down to two messy, under-developed storylines about fed-up public defender Casi (John Boyega). The first story is a character study set in the New York criminal court system, which has not improved much since “And Justice for All…” was released in 1979, and is generally represented by a series of loud but toothless exchanges between Casi, an overworked do-gooder, and antagonistic Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin), who enjoys frustrating Casi and his clients.
The second story is a rambling science-fiction caper about stolen drugs and alternate timelines; despite some reluctance, Casi tries to help equally overworked impound-lot bureaucrat Lea (Olivia Cooke) by locating and fencing some cocaine that was stashed in a seized Lincoln Navigator. There’s a lot less of this second story to make sense of, shoe-horned as it mostly is into the movie’s overstuffed back half.
Unfortunately, both stories are defined by unconvincing plot contrivances and hokey, half-cooked dialogue that breeze by seemingly important info about the Mexican cartels (the coke belongs to them), creepy stalkers (Lea becomes involved with one), and oh yeah, the universe’s impending collapse (something about a “ripple” in “the bindings of our universe”). So while “Naked Singularity” might have been something weird and great, it’s ultimately just two different kinds of bad.
“Naked Singularity” begins and ends with a “Candide” quote that Casi finds copied on a pair of freight elevator doors: “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?” An anonymous graffiti artist responds succinctly with “Suck it,” but writer-director Chase Palmer is sadly not as direct or sensible. Instead, Casi’s the sort of by-now-clichéd working-class hero, who we know wears his heart on his sleeve because he never stops saying as much. He frequently clashes with Judge Cymbeline, angrily declaims about what his clients deserve (but probably won’t get), and sulks about the unfixable court system.
So when Cymbeline threatens Casi with a formal complaint — “A contempt proceeding is career-ending for such a young attorney” — he not only refuses to apologize, but also literally seems to float an inch or two off the ground as the rest of the universe shudders violently and threatens to break apart. This is when the two main storylines of “Naked Singularity” are supposed to converge. It’s also an emblematically tone-deaf image in a movie full of tin-eared dialogue and baffling leaps in logic.
Case in point: Lea’s noirish story barely makes sense, which is especially unfortunate as her quest for cocaine is also Casi’s way of airing out his courtroom discontent. Lea hooks up with Craig (Ed Skrein, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), a deeply sketchy impound-lot supplicant who introduces himself to Casi by trying to bribe her. Craig wants to recover his friend’s Navigator — and the drugs he has stashed inside — and she (eventually) wants to escape her dead-end job at the lot.
It’s hard to suspend one’s disbelief during key scenes that follow Lea and Craig’s initial encounter and their inevitable falling out. She hooks up with him on a Tinder-like dating app, and his opening line is “Where U Live?” He also has an “OBEY BITCHES” chest tattoo. When Casi asks Lea to explain what she saw in Craig and his cocaine-related mishegoss, she sulks: “I was tired of my life.” Oh, OK.
The sci-fi story elements of “Naked Singularity” don’t make any more sense or hang together better than the rest of the movie. There’s some spacey talk about the imminent unraveling of the cosmic “fabric that binds us all together,” but it’s mostly explained through bad post-Shatner beat-poet dialogue related to Casi by his reclusive stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson, of course). Nelson’s character ostensibly stitches together the movie’s various moving parts together — “I’m telling you: things that used to have no mass, now suddenly do. Like punishments that don’t fit the crime” — but he’s benched for most of the movie’s first half and only re-appears around the 44-minute mark.
Then again, what would you expect from a movie that never does enough with its more singular qualities? Boyega is fine, but his dialogue is either lethal (“I work for a machine, that is, the U.S. justice system.”) or ill-suited to his talents: I do not believe that his character would ever call anything “Popeye Doyle–level shit.” And while “Naked Singularity” is only immediately about Casi’s imploding world — and therefore how he must do what he can to make a difference with his limited resources — it’s often unclear why Lea is the subject of his concern. Why insert yourself into such a dismal scheme, especially one that’s spearheaded by Casi’s sleazy attorney friend Dane (Bill Skarsgård, who is somehow also in this movie)?
There’s no urgency to the movie’s heist scenes, and nothing substantial to link them to Casi’s courtroom drama, so it’s often impossible to follow “Naked Singularity” as it bounces from one cheesy, malformed idea to the next.
“Naked Singularity” opens in theaters in New York on Aug. 6 and in US theaters and on-demand Aug.13.