Ezra is Much Too Schmaltzy and Straightforward For Its Own Good

Still From Ezra. Image Credit to Bleecker Street.
Still From Ezra. Image Credit to Bleecker Street. /

Ezra, the fifth feature-length directorial effort of actor Tony Goldwyn, begins with a joke. More specifically, the movie begins with a series of jokes delivered by stand-up comic Max Brandel (Bobby Cannavale). The protagonist of Ezra, Brandel regales the audience with stories about his autistic son Ezra (William Fitzgerald) and how he communicates with the wider world. The screenplay by Tony Spiridakis juxtaposes this stand-up with flashes of Ezra stirring up his classmates at his public school. Both of these characters are working up a crowd. One of them is just being a bit more disruptive about it. Like father, like son, and all that.

Afterward, Ezra shifts to Max and his ex-wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne). The duo are told Ezra should start attending a school for special needs students. That doesn't sit well with Max. He despises the idea of Ezra receiving different treatment or medication. He's steadfast in that contempt even after an incident involving Ezra sneaking out at night that leads to a hospital stay. Eventually, that hospital visit leads to a violent confrontation between Max and a doctor. Afterward, Max is slapped with a 30-day restraining order against seeing Ezra. Rather than splitting father and son apart, this development leads Max to a hair-brained scheme. He whisks the kid away from Jenna’s house in the middle of the night and the two set off on a cross-country road trip together.

You've undoubtedly seen viral videos that use skilled editing and ominous music to transform a happy movie into a horror film. , for instance. transforms into something akin to Insidious. Ezra kept reminding me of that phenomenon despite Goldwyn’s filmmaking soaking the screen in sunny and sentimental imagery ripped from so many indie comedies of the 2000s and 2010s. If you tell this story from either Ezra or Jenna's perspective, this story becomes a harrowing domestic drama. It could be a horror film about your neurotypical father refusing to listen to you. It could also be a thriller about your unhinged ex-husband kidnapping your son.

Ezra conjuring up bleak images even while it’s being so maudlin does not speak well of its artistic effectiveness. Spiridakis has concocted a script too arch to inhabit such straightforward execution. Max could be an interestingly dark character if he inhabited the endless moral nuances of a Lina Wertmuller or Martin Scorsese feature. The premise could even be the basis for an enjoyable dark comedy from somebody like director Bobcat Goldthwait. Here, though, Ezra is just a film about child abduction that ends with schmaltzy monologues about “a father’s love”. Big character defects and sources of conflict, including the issuing of an Amber Alert, fizzle out in favor of Hallmark movie platitudes. Ezra needed a more morally complicated tone to make its outlandish melodrama click. That kind of tone could've also given the actors way more to play with. Immensely talented actors like Cannavale and Robert De Niro seem stranded in this feature with nothing to do but either shout or give big lectures about the importance of family. Opting for conventional sentimentality doesn't just fail the audience, it underserves this great cast.

Worst of all, though, Ezra, despite the best intentions of its cast and crew (Spiridakis, for the record, has a son with autism), doesn’t bring anything new or interesting to the autistic cinema canon. Early scenes feature fleeting moments where the camera ducks down low to capture Ezra’s point-of-view of walking around in a crowded bar or comedy club. Such shots let viewers have a concrete view of what the world is like from Ezra's eyes. These initial sequences also introduce concrete interests or coping mechanisms for the youngster. That latter element manifests in the especially specific detail of Ezra appreciating his ear lobes rubbed. That's one of the best details of the entire movie since it feels so idiosyncratic to this character.

As the runtime goes on, though, the drama surrounding Max abducting his son gets larger and larger in scope. The focus largely shifts towards that and supporting characters like Grace (Vera Farmiga) offering Max simplistic life lessons. Save for a welcome moment where Ezra finally tells his father “I’m not your superhero, I’m your son,” this adolescent character and his worldview largely fade into the background. Ezra’s often just a plot device motivating Max and other adult characters like his grandpa Stan (Robert de Niro). His unique behavior flourishes (namely his tendency for speaking in a frank manner) are played as jokes for neurotypical viewers. All these traits service a storyline that's par for the course for mainstream autistic cinema.

If you’re going to have an autistic character in a movie, chances are they’ll be white adolescent boys who have strained relationships with their fathers and parents. Whether it's blockbusters like The Predator, horror films like The Darkness, or indie dramas like The Good House. Ezra doesn’t do nearly enough to separate itself from that pack. Even if there already weren’t other similar titles out there, though, the artistic shortcomings here would persist. Ezra would still be a character that doesn’t get much in the way of depth or an inner life. At least the film provides a solid showcase for the acting chops of William Fitzgerald. Despite getting handed a poorly-written character, Fitzgerald does great work in the feature’s titular role.

Ezra and Max’s central relationship also fails to really garner much depth thanks to an overcrowded screenplay by Spiridakis. A subplot about Jenna and Stan going out to save this father/son duo especially distracts from Ezra's conceptual heart. We desperately need more screentime to make Ezra feel like a developed character. Instead, Ezra keeps grinding to a halt so Jenna can be berated by yet another male character in the story. Some movies can handle a grand narrative scope. Ezra struggles to even juggle two storylines.

If the visuals of Ezra were a bit more compelling, perhaps these screenwriting deficiencies would be less overbearing. Stirring images can so often compensate for narrative flaws in a visual medium like cinema. Initially, Goldwyn and cinematographer Daniel Moder inject some free wheeling but at least slightly unexpected visual flourishes. These include a spinning camera capturing Daniel chatting it up with other stand-up comedians. By the time our two leads hit the road, though, Ezra settles in for a very banal style of filmmaking. Exploring this narrative beyond New York City doesn’t inspire much interesting blocking or staging. The camera becomes stagnant and nothing in the cinematography reflects the evolution of the characters. Ezra doesn't just provide a barrier between audiences and its characters. It also tragically foregoes opportunities for its imagery and thematic elements to interestingly mingle.

Such flat imagery reflects how rudimentary of an enterprise Ezra is. Nothing in here is tantamount to a cinematic crime, but it’s all so cookie-cutter. Talented actors like Bobby Cannavale can’t elevate material copied and pasted from typical movies about troubled autistic youngsters. Good intentions undoubtedly abound behind the creation of Ezra, but they failed to coalesce into a compelling movie. In the pantheon of modern indie features concerning dads who whisk their youngsters away from conventional society, Ezra is much more like the miscalculated Captain Fantastic than the engaging Cowboys.

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