Giacomo DiNorscio was the flashiest member of New Jersey's Lucchese crime family, which was charged with 76 counts of breaking the law. Of the 20 accused mobsters, he alone actually chose to defend himself in court.
A comedy with patches of drama, Sidney Lumet's ''Find Me Guilty" watches DiNorscio blunder his way through the legal process, practicing in the courtroom what he's studying in his prison cell.
Lots of actors could have played DiNorscio, nicknamed ''Fat Jack" or ''Jackie Dee," with an unlikely blend of self-mockery and hubris, goofiness and gravitas. But one can only assume they were busy shooting the current season of ''The Sopranos."
Instead, the job falls to Vin Diesel. And the best I can say about his performance is that it's charmingly terrible. He wears a John Gotti wig, his hands slice and sail through the air when he talks, and that bottomless, rumbling, eternally smoky voice is sometimes inflected with glee.
Any actor can get a laugh merely by asking the judge, ''May I have a sidebar?" But Diesel asks in a way that's hilarious and kind of heartbreaking. Neither he nor the character has any idea what he's doing.
When intimidation is called for, Diesel seems petulant. When he's required to be sexual, he looks childish and sleepy. Elsewhere, he looks lost, exposed, and, on a few occasions, freaked out by the impossible burden the film puts on him: to turn ground turkey into a Butterball.
But what can he do to pick up the movie's pace? Starting in 1987, the Lucchese trial crawled on for a historic 21 months, and the movie feels like it lasts twice that long. Lumet is kind enough to tell us how many days have passed (334, 521, etc.) and forces us to spend time with the prosecuting attorneys, led by the usually fine English actor Linus Roache, who rarely turns down an opportunity here to seethe or blow up.
Roache's character is meant to be our window onto the trial's absurdity; its length and ludicrousness are giving him a nervous breakdown. But Roache has mistaken ''Find Me Guilty" for a farce it doesn't have the energy or sharpness to be.
Lumet is a long way from his 1982 courtroom triumph, ''The Verdict." But he's even far from the occasional pleasures of his previous picture about hoods, 1989's so-so ''Family Business."
No director in Hollywood has had as thorough or keen an interest in American urban decay, from ''The Pawnbroker" and ''Serpico" to ''The Wiz," ''Prince of the City," and ''Q&A." Lumet's career has been long and amazingly diverse, but the New York metropolitan area, its cops, thugs, courts, and ghettos, have been a uniting thread. With ''Find Me Guilty," Lumet is clearly going for the tricky balance of satire and social outrage that he perfected in ''Dog Day Afternoon" and ''Network." But at 81, the director just isn't as nimble or as mad as he used to be.
Scenes in ''Find Me Guilty" just trickle by, and all the action on the witness stand seems to run together. Ron Silver sedately plays the judge, and he's picked the wrong occasion to stop overacting. (He might bring too much order to the court.)
Because the film, written by T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea, seems so overstaffed and undercooked, it's often hard to know who's who and what precisely is happening. Every day, all 20 defendants appear in the courtroom at the same time, along with their lawyers, family members, and whoever else wants to be an extra. With this many tacky people sitting so lethargically around so many tables, the courtroom shots seem like velour paintings of ''The Last Supper" stagnating at a yard sale.
Every once in a while, something funny will happen. Every day, one elderly defendant has to be wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital bed. At one point, during the trial, the poor guy dozes off and rolls from the mattress onto the floor. Anybody struggling to stay with this movie will know the feeling.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.