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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…