In “Battlestar Galactica” star and sometime director Edward James Olmos’ “The Devil Has a Name,” corporate America is poisoning the little guy, again. Call me cynical, but that will hardly come as a surprise to most audiences, who’ve been watching entities with deep pockets shirk public safety for quick profits for the better part of their lives, thanks in no small part to Hollywood’s efforts to amplify the whistleblower. Over the years, we’ve seen nuclear facilities fail to contain radiation (“Silkwood”), fracking interests conspire to deceive a small town (“Promised Land”) and Dupont dump toxic chemicals into a West Virginia water supply (“Dark Water”).
Such movies are nearly always earnest to the point of self-righteous, an approach best exemplified by “Erin Brockovich” — which is the case “Devil” most closely resembles, since both true(ish) stories seek to expose the impact of carcinogens seeping from unlined wastewater ponds into the surrounding area. Cross that with a different Julia Roberts movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” with its rowdy, semi-satiric retelling of stranger-than-fiction political corruption, and you’ve got a sense of the gonzo, stick-it-the-Man tone of Olmos’ carpet-bombing attack on oil-industry malfeasance.
The devil in each of these movies has a name. “What, ‘capitalism’?” you ask. Well, sure, though screenwriter Rob McEveety (who’s delivered a doozy of a script for his first produced feature) zeroes in on a more specific term, which surfaces during the movie’s courtroom portion in one of those showboaty “Matlock” moments when an activist lawyer (Martin Sheen) asks the court if they’ve ever heard the words “net present value” — the idea that if corporations can make more money now than they’d be on the hook for later if and when they’re busted for bad behavior, they have every incentive to continue.
The only way to trump such logic, the movie argues, is to make the greedy suckers pay — hit ’em with a bill so heavy that it cripples the polluters and incentivizes others to shape up, lest they face financial ruin in the future. I’m not convinced this strategy will work (it’s hard to imagine a greater future cost than the looming threat of global warming, for example, and yet corporations keep right on chasing near-term profits with no care for the consequences), but it makes for good theater: Put a little guy (like David Strathairn’s half-loco almond farmer) up against Big Oil — in this case, a fictional company called Shore Oil and Gas — and watch the sparks fly.
McEveety overwrites the heck out of his script, cramming it full of fancy language and over-the-top caricatures, like Shore Oil regional director Gigi Cutler (a wicked Kate Bosworth), who saunters into a board room, slams back a few whiskey shots and explains, in a cockeyed Texas drawl, “There are 53 different types of nuts in the world. He was one of them.” She’s referring to Fred Stern, whose almond crop has been compromised by radioactive microparticles — shown oozing from the waste pits into his shower water like plaque in a computer-generated Listerine commercial — but a line like that tells you we’ve left planet earth and are operating in the carnival-like realm of the imagination.
The timeline’s all jumbled, but eventually, it becomes clear that Gigi’s job was to buy Fred’s land out from under him (she offers $50,000 through a nitwit intermediary played by Haley Joel Osment). But that offer backfires, piquing his suspicions that Shore Oil has something to hide. They might even be responsible for his wife’s death to cancer a few years earlier. So Frank turns around and sues the company or roughly $2 billion, hiring an ever-so-slightly fictionalized version of consumer crusader Ralph Nader (Sheen) to represent him.
Olmos casts himself as the undocumented foreman of Fred’s farm (one of the good guys), and enlists six-and-a-half-foot Pablo Schreiber as Shore Oil’s stop-at-nothing fixer (pure evil), then sets these characters against one another in a mess of sneaky deals, double-crosses and substance-abuse binges so confused the whole movie starts to feel like a tornado touched down in the editing room.
Olmos’ concern ostensibly goes out to the good people of California’s Central Valley, whose water supply has been thus compromised — although a similar movie could also be made about how terribly wasteful growing almonds in the desert has been to natural resources. In the end, the characters are all so transparently self-interested that it doesn’t feel as if any outcome will actually fix the problem. What should have been a galvanizing David-versus-Goliath story pales in comparison to Amazon series “Goliath,” which is comparably colorful but far more coherent as it hits so many of the same beats. By the time Gigi takes the stand, this loony, Bible-quoting movie has spiraled off into some parallel reality, leaving audiences unclear on far too much, including what the devil its title was trying to say.