Movies containing portrayals of autism haven’t always treated the subject with sensitivity and conviction. Some breakout successes like “Rain Man” have conflated it with the savant syndrome, which isn’t representative of the full spectrum of people with autism. Writer Tony Spiridakis, who has raised an autistic child, and his friend, director Tony Goldwyn, approach the subject with the benefit of first-hand experience. They even have an autistic child actor in the title role (William Fitzgerald). It’s a pity, then, that the film they have constructed around him is a formulaic Hollywood homily drowning in cheap sentiment and platitudes.
“Ezra” is a dramedy centered on deadbeat comedian Max (Bobby Cannavale), still living with his dad Stan (Robert De Niro) in New Jersey. He tries to cobble together a living by doing stand-up at local venues but refuses to be a doorman like his father. Max is also raising his 11-year-old autistic son Ezra with his successful, estranged ex-wife Jenna (Rose Byrne), though Ezra primarily lives with his mom. Whoopi Goldberg plays Max’s hard-working agent who, against all odds, lands him a gig on Jimmy Kimmel. Due to a series of flare-ups and misunderstandings, Max ends up “borrowing” Ezra (kidnapping, according to the police, since Max has a restraining order) and embarking on a cross-country road trip with him as they make their way to Kimmel in LA. Along the way, as is standard, lessons are learned, bonds are formed, and people change for the better.
How far audiences go with “Ezra” would depend upon their reaction to Max, played with a melodramatic, extroverted flourish by Cannavale. He is undoubtedly meant to be a lovable, self-destructive man-child, a one-of-us over-emotional father figure lashing out against the world to protect his autistic son. Yet his actions often veer into irrationality, rendering him a poorly written character rather than a fully realized person. When a doctor recommends Ezra attend a school for kids with special needs and take oral medication, Max punches him in the face and ends up in jail. Some audiences might find such actions laudatory or comedic, but others might be yanked out of the movie due to the Hollywood of it all. The broadness of Cannavale’s performance also extends to other performers, who often resort to shouting their lines in a perverse display of histrionics.
Elsewhere, the tonal imbalance of the film is amply displayed in certain running gags that fail to land. One bit concerns Robert De Niro’s decades-old grudge against Max’s friend, played by Rainn Wilson, due to the supposed theft of a frying pan. When the two meet, they physically tussle over a frying pan in a bit that plays at the level of ‘SNL’ in what is elsewhere a film about autism. Even the several stand-up sequences by Cannavale fail to illicit any laughs and seem labored — lacking the easy, nonchalant energy that Jerry Seinfeld managed in similar sequences in “Seinfeld.”
The supposed transformation of the characters is also extraordinarily pat and by the numbers. Several of Ezra’s concerns, like not wanting to eat with a metal spoon or not wanting to be hugged, are overcome instantaneously in an encounter with a young girl who is the daughter of Vera Farmiga’s character, Max’s old flame, whom they meet on the road. Such tropes perhaps have a place in movies wanting to be crowd-pleasers, but the execution here doesn’t do it any favors. They seem cynically applied to illicit aww reactions and tears from the crowd — another instance of the film’s overreliance on narrative shorthands and templatized storytelling. The modest production is directed by Goldwyn in a strictly pedestrian point-and-shoot manner, rendering it anonymous and undistinguished. Overusing the score to generate emotion contributes to the overall feeling of manipulation.
Toronto seems like a peculiar choice to launch a film like “Ezra” given its late-in-the-year place in the calendar and the fact that it is still looking for a buyer. A Sundance bow might have been more opportune — befitting the film’s scope and an opportunity to make a bigger splash. Whenever “Ezra” reaches audiences, some will undoubtedly find its portrayal of autism gratifying. If the audience can look past the maudlin conception, certain insights are definitely to be had from this flawed portrait of an autistic child and his family’s attempts to give him a good life. [C-]