Producers: William Horberg, Jon Kilik, Tony Goldwyn and Tony Spiridakis   Director: Tony Goldwyn  Screenplay: Tony Spiridakis   Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, William A. Fitzgerald, Vera Farmiga, Tony Goldwyn, Rainn Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jacqueline Nwabueze and Matilda Lawler    Distributor: Bleecker Street

Grade: C+

There’s no denying the level of passion and commitment behind this film about a father driven to desperate measures in an effort to ensure that his autistic son should have as normal a life as possible.  Writer Tony Spiridakis has a son on the spectrum, and Tony Goldwyn, who takes a supporting role as well as directing, is the boy’s godfather.  Moreover William A. Fitzgerald, who plays the title role, is actually neurodivergent.

The initial section of the film, while hardly free of fraught elements, is imbued with a degree of candor about the family dynamic that’s honest and incisive.  That’s why it’s so disappointing that in the latter stages it veers into issue-movie cliché and mawkishness.  “Ezra” is a half-a-loaf proposition in which the good parts are intelligent and persuasive, and the bad ones stale.

Bobby Cannavale stars as Max Brandel, a stand-up comedian with a hair-trigger temper whose act often dissolves into gloomy reveries about his collapsed marriage to Jenna (Rose Byrne), who already has a new boyfriend named Bruce (Goldwyn), and turmoil surrounding eleven-year old Ezra (Fitzgerald), who has an encyclopedic knowledge of famous movie catch phrases but screams when anyone tries to hug him and can be disruptive in school.  Max’s life with his father Stan (Robert De Niro), an ex-chef who’s now a doorman at a swanky apartment building and has anger issues of his own, is, to say the least, uneasy, and his endlessly supportive agent Jayne (Whoopi Goldberg) is frustrated by her client’s inability to keep from rambling into dark places during his set.  And yet she comes through for him in incredible fashion.

Max’s professional potential is threatened, though, by his own volatility.  When his teachers suggest Ezra needs to be sent to a special needs school, Max reacts with anger; and when a doctor prescribes medication for the boy, Max threatens him physically.  That results in a night in jail and a restraining order.  Even worse comes when Ezra is hit by a car sneaking out of Jenna’s house one night as a result of misunderstanding a conversation between his mother and Bruce; Max reacts impulsively by effectively kidnapping his son despite Stan’s warnings that he’s making a mistake.  The two become the subjects of an Amber Alert.

At this point the movie turns into a double road trip.  Max has a destination in mind—Los Angeles, where Jayne has secured him a spot on Jimmy Kimmel’s show.  But on the way there will be stops in Michigan, for a stay with Max’s erstwhile comedy club buddy Nick (Rainn Wilson) and aspiring nun Sister Margaret (Jacqueline Nwabueze), who happens to be living with him (platonically, to be sure—one of the overly quirky bits that begin to collect during the trip).  Then there will be an unplanned stopover at the Nebraska ranch of an old friend named, a bit too on-the-nose, Grace (Vera Farmiga), her daughter Ruby (Matilda Lawler), and their horses.  At the same time Jenna and Stan take off on a road trip of their own to track down Max and Ezra, which is what the authorities are also trying to do.

Naturally these trips result in reflection and reassessment.  Max, for example, will come to understand more fully the reasons behind his own temperament, and think about how it’s influenced his son.  Jenna will realize how much she wants to support Max even after what he’s done.  Stan will come to grips with how his anger destroyed his marriage and impacted Max, and when he catches up to his son, he apologizes profusely (in a juicy monologue that perhaps persuaded De Niro to take the role). 

But the greatest effect by far is on Ezra—which is where the manipulative quality of the piece comes most definitely into play.  The boy loosens up considerably under the influence of the vibrant Sister Margaret, and of little Ruby, who fends off a local boy who calls him a freak and, more importantly, teaches him how to connect with a horse.  The idea that in a span of minutes the isolation that the boy’s autism creates can be substantially resolved by such human contact seems like little more than a writer’s contrivance combined with wishful thinking.

Then there’s the big finale when everybody makes their way to Kimmel’s studio.  The result is both chaotic and saccharine, and topping it off with an unfunny gag in the final credits with cameos by Kimmel and Guillermo Rodriguez doesn’t help. 

That leaves “Ezra” a decidedly mixed bag, a film that starts strongly, the complexity and rawness it initially brings to the dysfunctional family environment giving way to something more conventionally contrived and sentimentally uplifting. Technically it’s a modest effort; the production design (Dan Leigh) and costumes (Donna Berwick) are suitably grubby, the music (Carlos Rafael Rivera) unimpressive.  And the cinematography (Danny Moder) and editing (Sabine Hoffman) opt for an oppressively in-your-face, ragged style that, while perhaps reflecting the messiness of the characters and the narrative, is nonetheless not very inviting.               

Still, there’s a good deal to like in the film.  Cannavale, whose over-the-top style has often undermined his turns in supporting roles, puts it to good use in a rare lead one, unafraid to portray Max as a damaged person whose demons can be destructive.  Similarly De Niro takes advantage of the opportunity to employ his gruff persona in a fashion more textured than has sometimes been the case in the past.  Byrne captures Jenna’s understandable concern, while Wilson, Farmiga, Goldwyn and Nwabueze all bring professional skill to underwritten characters; Goldberg seems to be phoning things in, literally.  

The real casting coup, however, is Fitzgerald.  His being on the spectrum himself is interesting, of course, but what’s really important is how adeptly he captures Ezra’s complexity (the boy is at once highly vulnerable and extremely wilful) —and the viewer’s sympathy.  His looks help—the shaggy hair, prominent teeth and Coke bottle glasses mark him out as different but quirkily charming.  But it’s his performance that wins you over.  It’s impossible to say how much it depends on his own personality or learned technique, but it’s certainly Goldwyn’s credit to have chosen Fitzgerald and then employed him so well. 

Inevitably there’s an underlying predictability to a film like this, which is, after all, an issues movie with an obvious point to make.  But for at least the first half it brings an unaccustomed edginess to its subject, though it fails to sustain it through to the end.