Producers: Steve McEveety, Patrick Hibler, Robert McEveety and Edward James Olmos Director: Edward James Olmos Screenplay: Robert McEveety Cast: David Strathairn, Edward James Olmos, Kate Bosworth, Pablo Schreiber, Haley Joel Osment, Katie Aselton, Kathleen Quinlan, Michael Hogan, Alfred Molina and Martin Sheen Distributor: Momentum Pictures
The aspirations are lofty but the result disappointing in Edward James Olmos’ humorously melodramatic tale, loosely based on actual events, of corporate skullduggery. The mixture of seriousness and farce doesn’t gel, with the central legal plotline going seriously haywire. But “The Devil Has A Name” compensates in some measure with an unlikely buddy pairing that’s played like a genial vaudeville routine by Olmos and David Strathairn.
Strathairn is Fred Stern, a crotchety California farmer still grieving the loss of his wife Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan), with whom he had once hoped to sail around the world; now her imaginative paintings of stages in the journey are all he has left. Santiago (Olmos) has been managing the farm for him for decades, and they have a loving odd-couple relationship, with Santiago genially pushing Fred’s buttons to get a rise out of him.
Fred’s land is adjacent to a rig run by mammoth Shore Oil and Gas, a Houston-based outfit run by a super-nasty, money-grubbing boss (Alfred Molina). The local part of the operation is in the hands of Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth), an ambitious woman who’s been given responsibility for purchasing the rights to the underground water on Fred’s spread because, as they know but he doesn’t, it’s being poisoned by their operation. As an intermediary she enlists Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment), a glad-handing local adman desperate for money.
Fred is initially inclined to accept the company’s low-ball offer, but suspects what they’re up to and, furious that the contamination might have caused his wife’s cancer, enlists Ralph Wegis (Martin Sheen), an old-time champion of class-action suits (his office boasts an unusual trophy of the part he played in the Ford Pinto litigation of the seventies), to take on the energy giant. His job will be to prove that Shore has long known it’s been polluting the local water, but has kept the information secret to maintain its profits, at the expense of public health.
Shore brings in Olive Gore (Katie Aselton), a powerhouse attorney, to head the defense team. Even more important, it imports Ezekiel (Pablo Schreiber), a brutal enforcer willing to resort to any means necessary to ruin Fred’s case, including framing Santiago, who, it turns out, is undocumented, for assault in order to secure his deportation. The company also turns public opinion against Stern by setting up a foundation, with desperate Gardner as its spokesman, to help locals—and claiming that Fred is only interested in his own profit.
Things seem to be going badly for Stern’s cause until a major twist involving Gigi and Ezechiel, who is pretty ambitious himself. That takes “The Devil Has a Name” into overheated film noir, femme fatale territory, leading to both a satisfying denouement for Fred and Santiago but a warning that pollution of the California environment is still continuing.
The best part of the film by far is the interplay between Strathairn and Olmos, which is almost worth the price of admission. Sheen also gets some mileage by mocking his goody two-shoes Jed Bartlett image. But Osment’s frantic performance is one that starts at a ten and goes up from there. And all the Shore-related material is wildly overdone, from Molina’s snarling boss and Aselton’s brittle lawyer without scruple to Schreiber’s stereotypical Texan thug, complete with Stetson and cigarillo. As for Bosworth, she’s stuck with a character so opaque that the actress seems totally at sea.
“The Devil Has a Name” is reasonably well made, with craft contributions from cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, production designer Jason Hougaard, editor Robert K. Lambert and composers Ariel Marx and Mark Tschanz that are perfectly acceptable. But although one may applaud Olmos’ desire to confront issues like environmental degradation and prejudice against immigrants, he and writer Robert McEveety haven’t managed to deal with them comfortably in this well-intentioned hodgepodge of comedy and overheated drama.
It is fun to watch him and Strathairn do their thing, though.