‘Ezra’ Review: Bobby Cannavale Lets It Rip as a Dad Who Kidnaps His Autistic Son in Tony Goldwyn’s Not-Bad Hearttugger

Sometimes, one of the shrewdest things a movie can do is to have its hero act in a way that’s not heroic or admirable or even very likable. In “Ezra,” Max Bernal (Bobby Cannavale), a stand-up comedian with a chip on his shoulder (he used to write for late night; now he performs edgy sets in places like the Comedy Cellar), is in a state of confused fury over what to do about his son, Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald), an owlish 11-year-old who’s autistic. Ezra attends public school in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he acts out, gets bullied, and responds to people on his own brainy but disconnected wavelength. His autistic behaviors aren’t particularly severe. He speaks in arcane pop-culture quotes, he’s scared that metal silverware will hurt his mouth, and he refuses to look you in the eye or allow himself to be hugged.

More and more, though, he’s failing to fit in. The administrators are recommending that he be transferred to a school for special-needs students. Max, seated in the principal’s office along with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne), doesn’t want to hear about it. He accuses the physician who would like to put Ezra on Risperdal of being a “drug dealer,” and when the doctor responds by saying that it’s clear where Ezra gets his difficult temperament from, Max assaults him.

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And that’s the least of his bad decisions. Slapped with a restraining order, which forbids him from seeing his son for three months, Max sneaks into Jenna’s house in the middle of the night and kidnaps Ezra, taking him on an impromptu road trip to Michigan. When the plan — not that it’s a plan, more of a desperation move from hell — is discovered, everyone from Jenna to Max’s crusty hellion of a father (Robert De Niro), whose home he’s been staying at, thinks what he’s doing is insane. And the audience isn’t given much of a reason to disagree.

But what we do see, full-on, is where Max is coming from. He’s a selfish hothead, with demons of his own, but he’s in a rage over something specific and timely: the educational/bureaucratic/pharmaceutical culture that’s obsessed with “safety” — with enforcing a matrix of rules and regulations that increasingly dictate what a parent like Max can and cannot do. Max feels like his authority, and maybe even his connection to his son, is being taken away. What’s more, as someone who’s self-righteous about his own feelings of outsider-ness, he thinks it’s vital that Ezra not be ostracized for his autism. Max believes that his son should be in the stream of things, surrounded by “normal” kids.

There are a lot of issues to debate here (some are culture-war issues), and it’s to the credit of Tony Goldwyn, the director of “Ezra,” and the screenwriter, Tony Spiridakis, that the movie doesn’t approach those issues with a chip on its shoulder. It’s not saying that Max is right or Max is wrong. It’s saying that when you have a special-needs child, these sorts of feelings might rise up in you, and the fact that Max cultivates them into a decision that seems like a disaster is what seizes our interest. The burden of proof is now on him.

Bobby Cannavale is the kind of actor who can do “mouthy hothead” in his sleep, but in “Ezra” he gives a canny and layered performance. Max, with his burning eyes (in his standup act, he cultivates the aura of an assassin), looks out and sees a world of full of Karens, like the nightclub owner who tells him he shouldn’t be plopping his kid on a barstool to watch his midnight set (something she’s probably right about). And he keeps lashing out at them. But what’s driving him is the tangle of agony he feels at everything about his son: the fact of his autism, the impossibility of knowing how to make him feel more well-adjusted, and his frustration at dealing with an institutionalized system that’s far from perfect — though when have our society’s public education protocols ever been perfect? (And how could they be?)

As the film sees it, there’s no “right answer,” but the answer that Max has come up with is a trigger reaction from the heart and the gut: He needs to be with his son. Not just to exist with him but to be with him. The movie is about Max and Ezra figuring out what that is, and newcomer William A. Fitzgerald, with his shy gopher grin, gives a performance that’s alive with discovery. He shows you Max’s blinkered reactions, the savant-like overawareness that shines through them, and the soul of affection that’s buried beneath them.

I wish I could say that these two found redemption in an awesomely organic and spontaneous way. But where a film like “Rain Man,” while a big studio blockbuster, presented the interaction between Dustin Hoffman’s gnarled, solipsistic, numbers-fixated Raymond and Tom Cruise’s smooth yuppie Charlie as a slow-growing exploration of human connection, the plot of “Ezra” is actually far more dependent on Hollywood devices.

Out in rural Michigan, Ezra learns to look a horse in the eye, to use silverware, and to hug a friend. Meanwhile, Max’s estranged wife and father are after him, caught in their own miniature discordant road movie. Byrne’s Jenna is all traumatized common sense, and De Niro plays Stan, a former chef who chased Max’s mother away, as (surprise) a hard-ass who’s too 1950s to want to talk about autism. But when he finally catches up with Max, he gives a big speech — an apology for his whole life — that demonstrates how much he’s learned. De Niro delivers it so well that you roll with it, and maybe even shed a tear, even as you think, “That’s a little too easy.”

They’re all headed to Los Angeles and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” which has booked Max for a spot (after Jimmy saw a tape of Max having a meltdown over Ezra in the middle of a set). The film itself seems to be heading for a hearttugger of an ending, and it is, though not the one you’re expecting. I guess today that passes for indie integrity. But the underlying integrity of “Ezra,” what makes it an honest film despite some formula devices, is that its message about how to help children with special needs is that there’s no magic way. Beyond celebrating them for who they are and showing them who you are.

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