Skip to main content

It’s an enema of sunshine.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
(2017)

(SPOILERS) The main takeaway from Roman J. Israel Esq. is that every Dan Gilroy movie can't be a Nightcrawler. That jet-black satire was a hit both with critics and (in a small but distinguished way) audiences, nabbing Gilroy an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay into the bargain. Sony doubtless gave him carte blanche as a result, on the basis that if material as unlikely as that did well, what did they know? The result is almost perversely uncommercial, an awkward movie that marches in dislocated beat with its awkward protagonist, staunchly refusing to chart the expected, stirring course of the "underdog hero" legal thriller and leading to a dénouement that hardly feels justified by its diffident content.


RomanPublic speaking is something I'm usually encouraged to avoid.

On the plus side, Denzel Washington's performance reminds you why he wins Oscars (though not this time), after years of reliably unremarkable performances in stony-faced actioners and the odd overly theatrical theatre adaptation. Roman’s a memorable creation, an aspergic "savant" (George Pierce’s word, in an understated turn from Colin Farrell) with an encyclopaedic knowledge of law and case histories, over-sized suits and billowing afro. 


It invited much actorly "business", teetering on the brink of Rain Man-lite Hollywood caricature at times, but that's part of the appeal. We see Roman's socially dysfunctional behaviour (he's been forced into the frontline after his partner suffers a heart attack) in front of judges and a generation to whom his values can appear prehistoric (if not patronisingly sexist – "I'm not an asshole, sister"). There's also half-hearted flirting with an unfulfilled love interest (Carmen Ejogo) that seems either studio mandated or Gilroy pre-empting studio mandates. 


RomanMy lack of success is self-imposed.

And most of all there's his unimpeachable standards with regard to civil rights and exposing the flaws in the system. This surely, we think, will lead to some sort of cathartic validation of the man, preferably in a courtroom, where his goal of social reform in respect of unfair plea bargaining receives a boost amid flashbulbs on the steps of the court building. But Gilroy resists the impulse. I get that; it would be too easy. Instead, though, he unravels everything Israel stands for on a whim of conflict, and it never once feels earned, that this man would make that decision, submit to that weakness of character. Instead of following his struggle to be heard in a system of corporate and state indifference, Gilroy doubles back and asks us to become involved in Roman’s moral quandary, and it stops the picture’s potential stone dead.


RomanWhat makes you different from this car?

Whatever Gilroy needed to do to justify this choice, he doesn't pull it off. Farrell's Pierce is too undernourished to really make the impact he should as the hot-shot lawyer who reveals his belief in Roman's values isn’t just an act, but Gilroy seems to think his filing of the latter's long-prepared brief is the validation needed, that Roman is ultimately a hero. Unfortunately, it lacks that impact. Even in the '70s, when this kind of downbeat character would have been essayed by Pacino or Hoffman (and directed by Lumet or Jewison), the makers would have resisted a course quite so passively antiseptic.


RomanThe ability to have conflicting ideas in your head takes effort.

Ultimately then, Roman J. Israel, Esq. muddles whatever it is Gilroy thought he was saying. As a character, Roman garners insufficient sympathy for his fate and fuck-ups to elicit pathos, and in terms of his reformist goals, they're pushed aside when he goes astray. Consequently, there's a sense that the picture focuses on the side dish over the main course. It isn't a complete failure – Washington's too watchable for that – but it's never more than a trifle. In the legal thriller genre, Gilroy's in no danger of eclipsing his brother's record.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.