‘Ezra’ Review: A Flawed Big Heart

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Ezra, a well-meaning but flawed family drama about a father doing the wrong thing for the right reasons regarding his autistic son.
User Rating: 5

I can’t imagine making films like Ezra is easy. Actually, let me rephrase. There are a lot of movies like Ezra when it comes to dramas with a lot of humor in them, with an emotional push that speaks to stories about kids deemed “different” by the majority of the society around them, whether that means dealing with autism, TCS, or Down syndrome. It’s not easy to deliver good examples of them, as there are too many times when the scripts struggle with making these stories about the kids in question or figuring out a way to do more than make a broadly noble statement wrapped up in clichés. All of this speaks to why Ezra is especially frustrating, as it gets so much right in authenticity and big-heartedness, but the plotting is so misguided.

Bobby Cannavale stars as Max Brandel, a divorced stand-up comedian living in New York with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro). He co-parents his autistic son, Ezra (newcomer William Fitzgerald, who is on the autism spectrum), with his ex-wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne). A situation arises rooted in a misunderstanding that leads to Max being given a restraining order that prevents him from seeing his son while attempts are made to put Ezra in a new school for children with special needs.

See Also: ‘IF’ Review: Can You Believe In An Imaginary Mess?

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Not having it, as Max wants Ezra to grow up knowing what it’s like to be around kids in a public school setting, he takes matters into his own hands, scoops up Ezra at night, and flees across the country. There’s an ultimate goal of reaching Hollywood for a gig Max booked on Jimmy Kimmel Live!*, but much of the film focuses on father and son interacting with old friends while staying ahead of mom and grandpa, who intend to catch up with them.

I’m sure some, especially parents, may be able to catch onto where the problems lie. This is a film that wants us to root for a father kidnapping his own son. He’s not doing it to keep the child away from a harmful situation, but uprooting him from a stable home life for the sake of a principle he has in his head, and doing it in the most dunderheaded way possible. Are their conversations to be had about what’s best for Ezra that could align with Max’s point of view? Of course, but while this movie has a bit of a comedic bent, the struggle to balance sitcom plotting with the nature of a story rooted in the truth of what it’s like to raise an autistic child throws this film’s tone wildly off course.

Now, this is a heartfelt and earnest feature. Director Tony Goldwyn (who co-stars as Jenna’s reasonable boyfriend who can’t help but be depicted as bad compared to Max) has taken a script by his friend Tony Spiridakis and attempts to do what is needed to make this story feel as authentic as he can within the bounds of a storyline needing to rely on a not-to-bright narrative concept. Spiridakis wrote much of this film based on his own experiences, and there’s plenty of involvement from others (cast and crew) rooted in the fact that they want to carefully stay true to the value of sharing stories about autistic children, including De Niro. None of this is a bad thing.

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Going a step further, Cannavale, the lead of this film, delivers a terrific performance. He’s been very good in the past, and he still has plenty to offer, but I entirely buy into the idea of a stand-up comedian facing certain realities and dealing with it. The movie wisely doesn’t make him any smarter than he needs to be (despite the film’s angle of wanting the audience to support his cause no matter what). It’s also not a film reliant on Max learning a valuable lesson about his son. Ezra avoids many pitfalls rooted in the misguided approaches to this kind of story, even if it makes several other critical errors.

The supporting cast is also strong. De Niro, as usual, doesn’t sleepwalk; he just makes it look easy, and his presence is welcome. Bryne (Cannavale’s real-life wife) manages to do more than be the standard ex-wife character, as she’s allowed reason and honest thoughts stemming from not wanting anyone to be punished for caring. Rainn Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Whoopi Goldberg all supply what’s needed in their brief roles.

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Fitzgerald is a real find for Ezra. I don’t want to assume he’s dialing back things and challenges he’s already managed to grow past to deliver a good performance. Still, whatever the case, Fitzgerald holds his own in a film featuring multiple veteran actors. He can be funny, lands the dramatic moments, and has a clever runner that involves his penchant for equating scenarios he finds himself in with movie quotes. I may have issues with this film overall, but it doesn’t hurt that the titular character is well-represented in this film.

Choosing to stay true to itself in terms of having adults talk like adults, the language gets this film its R-rating, and it feels like knowing that, as a writer, the screenplay is able to sidestep areas that could become overly mawkish. Yes, I think it’s perfectly healthy to have kids of a certain age and parents to watch this film together, as it means well and doesn’t become too sloppy in what it’s trying to present. Again, I just have severe reservations about how this film wants to parade Max’s ideas as “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons” and not delving into that with any deeper consideration.

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Ezra is far from terrible, as it has many entertaining moments, solid performances, and a big heart. It just finds itself stuck in narrative corners with no easy way out. The fact that it’s ultimately a touching story is not a reason I see to mark a strike against it, as I’m not sure what one would expect from a film about an autistic boy and his struggling parent. The difficulty of making films like this a success stands true in this instance, but I do admire the effort. It’s a moving family drama, but with a bit more nuance, it could have been a great one.

*During the end credits, there’s a comedy bit that I have no idea what to make of. It involves Kimmel and would be framed as a fun clip from his show, but its placement in this film comes out of nowhere.

Ezra opens in theaters on May 31, 2024.

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Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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