Brian Banks is easily director Tom Shadyac’s best movie in nearly a quarter-century. But considering his résumé — the treacle of Patch Adams or Dragonfly, and the biblically bad Bruce and Evan Almighty — that’s a compliment with a backhand sized to match the one with which the Jackass crew smacked each other.
Setting aside a new-agey documentary in 2010, Banks is Shadyac’s first fictional movie following the fiscal flop of Evan Almighty in 2007. Morgan Freeman’s uncredited appearance here as someone who might be God makes you wonder: Is this is a Bruce Almighty Presents sort of thing? Thankfully, sermonizing is among the few elements not laid on thick in a well-meaning, but not well-made, movie of the week jam in which even the completion of online forms comes with its own inspirational rap montage.
Shadyac’s film tells the true story of the titular football star from California, bound for USC and the NFL. In 2002, a false rape accusation upended Banks’ future, and misguided legal advice landed him in prison for six years — with lifelong registry as a sex offender tracked via GPS anklet.
Unable to find gainful employment with his record — or find a way back to football given his inability to go near schools or parks — Banks turned to Justin Brooks, a lawyer whose California Innocence Project specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. Given the structure of Banks’ plea deal and other circumstances of the case, there’s little with which Brooks has to work. “I need something big,” Brooks tells Banks, “something earth-shattering … EXTRAORDINARY!” After a chance encounter makes that possible, Brooks and his team risk navigating narrow judicial straits to help Banks reclaim his deferred dreams.
From its blah trajectory to its bland title (come on, Turnover was right there, people!), Brian Banks is straight-up cardboard filmmaking, as if a two-hour weekend 20/20 special were given dramatic license. It’s clearly a matter of time before Brooks and company take on Banks’ case, and the movie’s middle 40 minutes meander through muck to get there. Doug Atchison’s screenplay is a Successories calendar in disguise (“Sometimes you’ve gotta walk deeper into the darkness to find the light”), Freeman’s character might as well be named M.T. Aphor, and there are barely any clichés left untouched.
At least Aldis Hodge’s performance as Banks gives everything to a movie that’s nothing more than what you might expect. So good on so many TV series for so long, Hodge lets us see the toll taken on a man who fears he must be forever furtive — uneager to unburden himself in front of anyone new out of concern that no matter how earnest, gentle or genuine he behaves, the conversation will always curdle. Lesser actors would fall back on mere teary determinism. Hodge infuses Banks with a dynamic of hesitancy and hope that’s a welcome tonic to the generally cloying mood.
Greg Kinnear delivers another sturdy, if unsurprising, supporting turn as Brooks. Too many of the character’s scenes recycle the same hands-tied hand-wringing speech. But eventually Kinnear meets Hodge halfway — establishing a believable bond between men of individual instinct who paired up to bust the parameters of a distressingly, and often predictably, broken system.
Quite frankly, they — and the people they play — deserve a movie better than one whose thesis settles for the shopworn nut of “All along, it was Brian Banks who was teaching us!”