Telling an inspirational true story does not absolve a filmmaker from the responsibility of telling that story well — and director Tom Shadyac certainly fumbles with “Brian Banks,” a true story of justice too long deferred and denied.
As a teen, Banks (played by Aldis Hodge) had it all going for him. He was a standout linebacker in high school, and USC’s coach, Pete Carroll (Matt Battaglia), had his eye on the kid as an NFL star someday. Then, in 2002, he was wrongfully accused of raping a classmate. Tried as an adult, and with bad advice from his lawyer, he took a plea deal — leading to six years in prison, five years of restrictive probation, and a lifetime on a sex-offender list.
The movie starts toward the end of that timeline, as Banks is desperate to restart his delayed football career, but his parole officer (Dorian Missick) won’t let him play community college ball because Banks might break his 24/7 ankle monitor. Banks also finds landing a job impossible, because he has to acknowledge his criminal record on the applications.
Banks believes his only hope is the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit team of lawyers who work to get wrongfully convicted inmates exonerated. The project’s founder, Justin Brooks (played by Greg Kinnear), tells Banks that the odds are against him — because the California justice system will retry cases only if there extraordinary evidence proving a prisoner’s innocence. Also, Brooks points out, Banks is at least out on probation, something the lifers the project usually handles can’t say.
Shadyac is not known for nuance; his resumé ranges from the grossly comical “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” to the suffocatingly smarmy “Patch Adams.” Working off a script by Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”), Shadyac works overtime to paint Banks as a wounded martyr, suffering for the sins of a broken judicial system — all of which is probably true, but saying so in such a hamfisted narrative doesn’t do Banks, or Brooks’ cause, any favors.
Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”) gives a strong performance, captured Banks’ frustration at the legal system and the tight lid he barely keeps on his emotions. But Shadyac lets Hodge down, creating a waxwork monument to perseverance rather than a fully realized character — complete with Morgan Freeman in his voice-of-God mode as Banks’ prison teacher and father figure. (If you want to see Hodge really shine in a tale of injustice, wait for Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance-winning “Clemency,” to be released for award season.)
“Brian Banks” also becomes problematic in its shallow handling of its women characters, from Banks’ stalwart mom (Sherri Shepherd) to the troubling portrayal of Banks’ young accuser (Xosha Roquemore). Shadyac becomes so single-minded in depicting Banks as flawless that the director lets other characters’ subtle humanity fly out the window.
Opens Friday, August 9, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language. Running time: 99 minutes.