Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Roman J. Israel, Esq., legal genius, struggles to live up to his ideals in a world dedicated to keeping him quiet.  After a medical tragedy takes out his partner, Roman is left with the prospect of unemployment or selling out his principles to stay alive.  Dan Gilroy wrote the screenplay for and directs Roman J. Israel, Esq., and stars Denzel Washington.

Denzel Washington and writer/director Dan Gilroy have one hell of a character on their hands with Roman J. Israel, Esq.  The title's awkward, but so's the man, and he'll repeat his full name enough times to prove he's going to command respect no matter the situation.  With his baggy suits, headphones, afro, and darkened apartment adorned with posters of idols raging from Angela Davis to Malcolm X, he feels like a man out of time.  Moments alone with Roman are when Washington and Gilroy are at their best, watching a man frozen in his ways but still hopeful he can bring some lasting good to the world.

In many ways, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a 180 turn away from the propulsive darkness of Nightcrawler (which was my favorite film of 2014).  Where Nightcrawler got inside the mind of a "by any means necessary" virulent capitalist, Roman J. Israel, Esq. takes the subtle route of showing how forced respectability compresses progress "by any means necessary" into claustrophobic spaces with no room to grow. Nightcrawler's Lou revels in the darkness while Roman struggles to stay in the light.  Gilroy's dedication to critiquing the status quo is patient this time around, but he doesn't have a compelling story to match the writing of this spectacular character.

Dan Gilroy's film works best in lower key confrontations involving Roman's inelegant social graces and passion for activism.

For everything Gilroy gets right with Roman he careens into the ground elsewhere.  This is painfully apparent in the way Gilroy writes Roman's love interest and partner in activism Maya (Carmen Ejogo).  It's possible Roman's awkward mannerisms and sudden bursts of passion might be endearing or inspiring to the right person.  That would require Maya to be written as a person, and Gilroy fails her by writing her off of a list of what not to do for women characters.  As presented in Roman J. Israel, Esq., her activism is a means of getting her in touch with Roman and beginning their odd courtship instead of her work coming from some aspect of her character.

The always welcome Colin Farrell plays another nothing character that seems conjured by more plot necessity.  He's Roman's new boss, George Pierce, and is in the ungrateful position of veering his emotional responses wildly depending on where Roman needs to go next.  There's dramatic necessity in characters responding to the protagonist in a way that keeps the film moving forward, but Gilroy keeps writing scenarios where Roman isn't forced to meaningfully deal with the many problems George (rightly) brings up.

Which is why Roman J. Israel, Esq. putters out to a whimper.  There's a grand sacrifice at the end that comes after Roman's been put through the cosmic wringer of bad luck.  I rarely feel so strongly that a film's plot is just happening to someone instead of their motivations keeping it in motion, and the series of contrivances to make Roman go against who he is provides a dishonest conflict with a copout resolution.  It reeks of punching up tensions that don't exist in order to have a more cinematic story when the low-key problems Roman faces are already compelling.

I feel a personal kinship with a guy like Roman, who says exactly the wrong things when trying to do the right thing.  Some people are so wounded by life that they don't lash back so much as try to make our existing systems of law and social etiquette follow strict guidelines.  One of Gilroy's few moments of visual effectiveness is in Roman's sickly yellow-brown apartment, jazz music playing in the background, as he peeks through blinders at construction that's disrupting his home life.  It shows how Roman's created a prison of his own making by retreating into the law, cocooning himself from the messy improvisation of his musical choices to grow more obsessed with the system that keeps letting him down.

Carmen Ejogo is a fine performer, but I'm not even sure someone like Viola Davis or Saoirse Ronan could salvage this nothing character.

Washington goes against type here by redirecting the swagger of his usual roles into something insular and uncertain.  He's tensed up for most of Roman J. Israel, Esq., and when he speaks up his words rattle out like a fast typewriter.  His mumbling doesn't come from a lack of confidence but from an inner monologue that's processing every bit of his environment at lightning speed.  He's a genius, and a case study that genius is not always a boon to the possessor if they lack the social graces to funnel their intellectual might into something productive.  The best scene of Roman J. Israel, Esq. showcases this tension as his passionate activism runs up against modern discourse, with the respect he wants to command dies in the type of internecine struggle he's devoted his life to avoiding.  Washington would be a lock for Best Actor in a better film, but that's unfortunately not the reality.

The reality is - there's a lot of admirable bits to Roman J. Israel, Esq. but the end product is messy.  Considering the more ideologically focused films as of late have produced execrable garbage like The Post and Detroit, Gilroy and Washington's noble failure is at least a step in the right direction.  Gilroy can write great characters, so it's only a minor disappointment that he can't always give them the story to match.

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Denzel Washington.

Posted by Andrew

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