Roman J. Israel, Esq.
(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.
Roman: Public 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.
Roman: My 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.
Roman: What 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.
Roman: The 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.
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