The concept, cast, and creativity behind “Naked Singularity” is notable. John Boyega plays a New York City public defender who is one step away from getting disbarred, thanks to a hard-nosed judge played by the wonderful Linda Lavin. His life is turned upside down by a PD impound lot clerk (Olivia Cooke), a stash of stolen heroin, an unethical colleague (Bill Skarsgård), Jewish gangsters, and his brainiac neighbor (Tim Blake Nelson) who warns of a looming cataclysmic event. Adapting Sergio De La Pava’s award-winning novel is an ambitious undertaking that doesn’t translate well in cinema form. The varied themes and surrealistic tone get lost in the shuffle in what becomes an average heist film.

Casi (Boyega) can’t catch a break. He believes in the justice system, but it’s failing his clients more and more every day. As a Manhattan public defender, he’s taxed with a monumental job, using limited resources to represent the many who usually fall through the cracks. To make matters worse, Judge Cymbeline (Lavin) had had it with Casi’s outcries for fair treatment as she hands down punishments too harsh for the petty crimes, so she threatens to have him disbarred.

Enter Lea (Cooke), who now finds herself in need of Casi’s help after being busted with a sample of heroin she snagged from a Navigator in the NYPD impound lot where she works as a clerk. Small-time thief Craig (Ed Skrein) — and Lea’s recent Tinder date — is to blame for getting her mixed up in the criminal underground with a tempting $100,000 offer for lifting the drug sample which he was going to use to reel in a big fish, The Golem (Kyle Mooney), a mob boss who leads the Hasidic Jew crime syndicate in Brooklyn. However, the drugs worth millions belong to the Mexican Cartel so there’s a lot of double-crossing about to go down and Lea is smack dab in the middle of it all.

Following Casi’s advice, she works out a plea deal with the NYPD detectives, offering to lead them to Craig who can lead them to the crime bosses involved with the heroin transaction. She walks free, they score a major bust while keeping $50 million worth of drugs off the streets, and Casi sees a little justice for one of his clients. Not so fast. The money is too big a temptation for all involved including Cassi’s jaded colleague Dan (Bill Skarsgård) who wants a piece of the action.

Adapted for the screen by David Matthews and the film’s director Chase Palmer, “Naked Singularity” as is, would work fine as a heist film disregarding the insane charm behind De La Pava’s surreal novel. There are quite a few changes between the book and the film, some understandable since it’s an ambitious undertaking. With so many different themes, De La Pava’s novel is a complex read that shifts gears at the speed of light. It works better on paper than on celluloid as the story’s stranger components are drowned out by the film’s focus on the criminal aspect.

The science, or in this case, science fiction (look up the definition of the film’s title for a complete explanation) is downsized to a few ramblings by Casi’s hermit friend, physics aficionado, and part-time prophet Angus (Nelson) who warns about an upcoming cosmic ripple, which may explain the city-wide blackouts, a digital billboard that displays the outside temperature as 150 degrees, and subtitles counting down to something called “The Collapse.”

“Naked Singularity” is very watchable thanks to the solid cast but not filling. If Palmer would have gone for a straight-up heist film, it could have been way more satisfying but then De La Pava’s vision is right out the window. The quirkiness of the book doesn’t transpire to the film which becomes convoluted as the story’s various themes fight for dominance with no clear winner.

(2 stars)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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