Mixing comedy and drama while making a political point is a tough nut to crack. As much as people like Adam McKay and Aaron Sorkin are good at making you angry and making you laugh in equal measure, there’s always folks who will take them to task for that approach. Moreover, there’s tons of storytellers out there who just can’t pull it off. Unfortunately, actor and director Edward James Olmos, along with his writer Robert McEveety, are the latest to join that latter group, with the film The Devil Has a Name. Despite noble ambitions and a solid cast, this is a misfire.
The movie is a dramedy, pitting an oil company against a farmer, with wide ranging consequences. When Gigi (Kate Bosworth) is pulled in front of her bosses (Alfred Molina, among them) to find out just what the hell happened, she tells the story of a battle with Fred Stern (David Strathairn). The company had initially been planning on buying parts of Fred’s land, something he’d been open to, over the objections of his friend and employee Santiago (Olmos), until he discovers that they’ve been poisoning his land, too. Rebuffing their advances through lowlife Alex (Haley Joel Osment), he expresses his rage, before going for legal counsel. Enlisting Ralph (Martin Sheen), the attorney who killed the Pinto, Fred takes the oil giant to court, pitted against Olive (Katie Aselton). Around the same time, a shadowy figure (Pablo Schreiber) shows up and begins making life very hard for Fred. How it all turns out, and how Gigi is involved, I’ll leave for you to find out, if you so choose. The aforementioned Olmos directs a screenplay by McEveety, with cinematography by Reynaldo Villalobos, as well as a score from Ariel Marx and Mark Tschanz. Supporting players include Kathleen Quinlan, among others.
What sinks this flick is that no one seems to have clear motivations. Edward James Olmos has more luck with the buddy comedy elements between Fred and Santiago than with any of the satire or dramatic elements. Olmos and Strathairn have solid chemistry, making their smaller and quieter moments together work. The rest? It’s lacking in punch and seems far too haphazard and random to leave a mark. You may end the film angry at big companies, and big oil companies in particular, but not with a clear sense of what to do about it. The message there, like other elements of the movie, is too muddled to successfully come across.
The Devil Has a Name is well intentioned and mostly entertaining, so it’s hardly a huge misfire. There are nice performances from Edward James Olmos himself, Martin Sheen, and especially David Strathairn, but Kate Bosworth, despite some flair, is disappointing, mainly due to the script. Olmos is a decent director, but scribe Robert McEveety never brings it all together. Early on, you wonder how they’ll connect everything. Around the mid-point, when you realize that it’ll just be whatever random machinations they choose, your interest wains, leaving the climax far more toothless than hoped for. It’s a shame, too, as this one definitely had potential.
Now playing, The Devil Has a Name is an imperfect attempt at a satirical dramedy. Credit to those involved for trying it out, but the execution just isn’t there. Honestly, you could do a lot worse than this one, but with so many better options out there (today alone, you can watch Sorkin’s far superior The Trial of the Chicago 7), it’s impossible to give this one a recommendation.
The Devil Has a Name is available to watch right now.
(Photos courtesy of Momentum Pictures)