3.5 out of 5 stars

Even with a bumpy script, this intense, fiercely acted comedy-drama about father-son relationships provides relief from summer blockbuster fatigue. Beneath the turbulent soap opera veneer of Ezra lies a complex domestic comedy-drama exploring the conflict over caring for a child with special needs when one parent has their own special needs. The film also poignantly depicts the legacy of mental illness passed down through generations.

Young Ezra Brandel (William Fitzgerald) is approaching his tweens and is high on the autistic spectrum. One evening, his father, Max Brandel (Bobby Cannavale), arrives at his mother Jenna’s (Rose Byrne) New York flat to take the boy to a Big Lebowski tribute screening and party (with Ezra cosplaying as “The Dude”).

Mom and Dad may represent courageous cultural libertarianism where their son is concerned, but for Jenna, rules are still rules. She explicitly demands that her ex-husband bring Ezra home straight after the film. In Max’s mind, though, rules just get in the way of fun. He takes Ezra on a detour to a late-night comedy club so he can squeeze in an audition performance for a chance at appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. This arouses Jenna’s anger, as so often happens with Max’s handling of their son.

As you might guess, the co-parenting arrangement between Jenna and Max isn’t working well, with Ezra caught in the middle. Max is one of those “difficult” men who have been central to so much trauma and drama in entertainment over the past twenty years. Forced to live with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro), he scrapes by as a stand-up comic in Hoboken, New Jersey.

At the manic end of the bipolar spectrum, he’s compulsively self-sabotaging, ruining every opportunity given to him by his adoring but frustrated agent, Jane (Whoopi Goldberg). Incapable of reasoning, he simply can’t shut up, not only for his own good but for the sake of his autistic son. He also treats Ezra too much like a fellow playmate and troublemaker, and not enough like a child whose well-being depends on him when his mom isn’t around.

It falls to Jenna to keep Ezra grounded and moving forward. This is a nearly insurmountable task, firstly due to Ezra’s latest classroom outburst, which led to his expulsion from school, and secondly, because of Max’s opposition to her efforts to help their son (a plan that includes specialist schools and medication). To Max, Ezra is perfect just as he is—structure is for losers and conformists. The world can go to hell and leave them both in peace.

Hovering on the edge of this volatile situation is the third unstable element, Max’s father, Stan Brandel. Where Max can’t hold his tongue, Stan has been unable to keep his fists in his pockets throughout his long life, brawling his way down from a career as a world-class chef to end his days as a hotel doorman. He loves both Max and Ezra, but his inarticulateness and a lifetime of violence leave him frustrated, confused, and too aware of his flaws to know the right course of action. Even as he sides with Max in the battle over his grandson, he simultaneously undermines him.

The breaking point arrives when Ezra overhears Jenna’s glib lawyer boyfriend, Bruce (director Tony Goldwyn), making a careless (and unconvincing) joke about arranging a Mob hit on Max. Taking the joke literally, Ezra sneaks out of his mom’s flat to warn his father but inadvertently runs into the road where he’s hit by a cab, sustaining minor injuries.

To Max, this proves Jenna is an irresponsible parent. After the boy gets home from the hospital, Max snatches him and takes him to a remote cabin where Nick (Rainn Wilson), an old colleague and fellow manic, has retreated from the chaos of showbiz for a quiet life in rural Michigan. Along the way, Max learns he’s been given a chance to audition for Kimmel’s show the following week, necessitating a long cross-country trek to Los Angeles with Ezra in tow.

Jenna, meanwhile, understandably panicked, files a missing person report and inadvertently triggers an Amber Alert, setting loose a nationwide police hunt for Max and Ezra. Desperate to rectify her mistake, she forms a reluctant alliance with Stan as the pair set off to catch up with Max and Ezra before the cops.

The acting elevates Ezra from its soap opera foundations and clumsy plotting. William Fitzgerald is the real deal, delivering an excellent, naturalistic performance as the troubled boy, making Ezra both endearing and exasperating. Equally exasperating, though less endearing, Bobby Cannavale excels as the hypercritical, short-tempered Max. He blusters along the knife edge of insanity while showing excellent rapport with young Fitzgerald in some very intense scenes that dramatise how a fun dad isn’t always a good dad.

Rose Byrne provides excellent ballast as the admirably pragmatic Jenna, struggling to maintain her sanity while juggling the sanity of three generations of troubled men—in addition to her dull, clueless boyfriend. It’s a pity her love life is so barren.

Finally, it’s refreshing to see De Niro in a realistic dramatic role that demonstrates once again his talent extends far beyond the realm of the gangster villain. He subtly reveals the legacy of the mental health conditions that link Stan to his son and grandson. Stan’s temperament has forced him to keep people at arm’s length for decades, leaving him lonely in his old age. It’s a compassionate portrait of a man from an older generation when bipolar disorder was unrecognised. He’s a tragic figure who senses the help now available to a younger generation may have come too late for him. The disappointment is etched on every wrinkle of De Niro’s weathered face.

Veteran filmgoers may recognise links to A Thousand Clowns (1965), which starred Jason Robards Jr. as another comedic manic at war with conformist society. This film is a touch more conservative in that respect. Here, director Tony Goldwyn wisely lets the actors guide his direction with a straightforward approach that keeps the drama central. He and cinematographer Daniel Moder eschew fancy imagery, except for a haunting shot of Max’s car stalled in the woods with fog swirling around as Max frantically searches for Ezra in the dark.

It’s a shame the script’s plot lacks credibility at times. Some of the plot triggers (like Bruce’s hitman joke) feel wrongly contrived. A couple of scenes, one with Max’s old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), hint at a hopeful scenario for Ezra’s future, but the film fades out on an unsatisfying open-ended conclusion that leaves the boy in a status quo, the only difference being Max must now maintain his distance.

Despite Cannavale’s excellent work as Max the eccentric Dad, Max the stand-up comic needs much better material than what he’s given here. Why anyone finds him particularly funny, let alone Jimmy Kimmel, is a mystery. My feeling may be due to my indifference to stand-up comedy, but he’s nowhere near the league of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (2017-2023). Any comic who’s that much of a handful needs to be a lot funnier.

USA | 2023 | 100 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Tony Goldwyn.
writer: Tony Spiridakis.
starring: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson, Tony Goldwyn, William Fitzgerald & Robert De Niro.