Review: Focused on Funny, Family Drama Ezra Misses Its Chance to Explore Neuro-Divergency, Generational Trauma

Something I wasn’t aware of until watching Ezra, the latest film by director Tony Goldwyn (who also co-stars in the film) is that there is something of a debate going on among parents of and doctors who diagnose autistic children, and it’s a topic worthy of much ethical discussion. Some adults believe that all education and medical treatment of autistic (or neuro-divergent) children should be aimed at making these kids as functional and traditionally “normal” as possible, through special school and drug therapy, while others believe that the autistic mind should be encouraged and and its differences celebrated and enhanced. While these varied schools of thought aren’t often explicitly voiced in Ezra, Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon, Conviction) and writer Tony Spiridakis (who based his screenplay on his experiences with his own son, now in his mid-20s) certainly make the issue part of the movie’s subtext.

The problem is, Ezra buries what could have been significant and topical about its story in the tale of a flailing standup comic, Max Bernal (Bobby Cannavale), who is living with his elderly father Stan (Robert De Niro) while working to co-parent with his almost ex-wife (Max won’t sign the papers) Jenna (Rose Byrne). The film lets us know its most significant issue right at the top when we get to hear a little of Max’s comedy routine, which isn’t funny or interesting, even when he gets personal about his struggles as the parent of autistic 11-year-old son Ezra (newcomer William Fitzgerald, who is himself autistic), who attends a public school but is disruptive and perhaps even dangerous, according to the principal, who wants him placed in a special needs school. Jenna likes that idea, but Max doesn’t want Ezra to think of himself as different and pushes back against the idea, causing friction in the relationship he’s barely holding onto with Jenna, who has a new partner, Bruce (Goldwyn).

After Ezra gets expelled, there’s really no choice about where he must go to school, which infuriates Max, who has anger-management and abandonment issues thanks to his mother leaving the family when he was young for reasons Stan won’t discuss (the red flags in this film could fill a downhill slalom course). Just as things are looking their worst, Max gets word from his agent (Whoopi Goldberg) that a producer from Jimmy Kimmel’s show is coming to see his act and possibly book him on the show. Because he can’t help himself, he lets his personal life get in his head and he blows the performance, leaving him feeling like he’s got nothing to lose. So naturally, he snaps up Ezra (effectively kidnapping him) and decides to drive west from New Jersey to his friend Nick’s (Rainn Wilson) house in a remote part of the midwest. But on the way there, he finds out that Kimmel still wants to book him, so the road trip becomes a cross-country one, and after a quick stop at Nick’s, the father and son head for Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, an amber alert is put out for Ezra, even though everyone knows who he’s with and that he’s okay. Stan and Jenna head out together when Stan figures out where they are going, but it actually feels like they just put those two in a car together to keep them actively doing something in the movie. For some reason, I really liked the short sequence where Max and Ezra stop at the home of Grace (Vera Farmiga), who I think is meant to be an ex-girlfriend of Max (pre-Jenna, we’re hoping), if only because it’s one of the few moments in Ezra where it feels like an actual, functioning adult enters the story.

The film wants so desperately to be endearing with splashes of funny, but instead, it simply turns into sentimental mush that might have once resembled a heart. While I’m a fan of films that aren’t afraid of mixing their tones, Ezra never really finds one that works. The jokes are rarely funny (but often contain a lot of four-letter words), the sappy father-son story never clicks because Max is so unhinged that I genuinely feared for Ezra’s safety for most of their trip together, and the messages about neuro-divergent kids is fuzzy and, again, gets lost among Max’s ranting and lame jokes. And to make matters worse, the film gets worse as it goes on, concluding with a resolution that will seem so neat and tidy, it might piss off a lot of people.

Through all of this disastrous undertaking, young Fitzgerald does solid acting work, especially in his scenes with De Niro, whose Stan seems best able to connect with Ezra and his many triggers. What makes watching Ezra all the more frustrating is that we can see the makings of a much better movie around the edges of the one we’re given. The cast includes some of my favorite actors working today, and the more serious issues around education and treatment of autism are worthy of many a conversation. But this movie just tanks all of it by refusing to go deep for fear of scaring audiences away. The truth is, bad movies scare audiences much more than good ones that might actually make us think. Look at that: we did actually learn something from Ezra.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.