Who could have foreseen the day when the casting of scowling, muscle-bound action superstar Vin Diesel as an aging, out-of-shape Italian mobster would prove less problematic to a film than the lifeless direction of the man behind Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon? Yet that's exactly the case with Find Me Guilty, a new courtroom comedy that finds Diesel chewing scenery in a role originally intended, and seemingly custom-made, for Joe Pesci. Director Sidney Lumet seems to think he's got such an amazing true-life story to tell here that he can deliver it in the stylistic equivalent of a brown paper bag. But a little cinematic razzle-dazzle certainly wouldn't have hurt his case.
Like Good Night, And Good Luck, a big chunk of Find Me Guilty is lifted whole-cloth from the historical record. The film follows the racketeering trial of Giacomo "Fat Jack" DiNorscio (Diesel), who early in his epic court battle insists that he's a "gagster," not a "gangster," though it's apparent that he's both, equal parts wiseguy and wisenheimer. DiNorscio decides to defend himself in court, much to the embarrassment of his vicious mob boss (Alex Rocco), who proves immune to his cornball charm and worries that his showboating antics will harm the cases of the other mobsters with whom he's standing trail.
Find Me Guilty dramatizes the longest criminal trial in American history, and it's sometimes so sluggishly paced that it seems to be happening in real time. But when the film starts cooking, its numerous shortcomings seem irrelevant. It takes some time to accept the miscast Diesel in a role that even he'd probably concede would be a better fit for Pesci, but Diesel delivers his liveliest and funniest performance in ages. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he finally has a juicy role that requires him to do more than scowl, glare, and beat people up. Peter Dinklage lends expert support as a savvy lawyer who spies a strange method in Diesel's seeming madness. Diesel and Dinklage: Now there's a potentially electric mismatched buddy-cop team worth looking out for.