Roman J. Israel, Esq.Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/17 10:11:39
If one was to make a list of the most charismatic actors working today, I cannot readily imagine one in which Denzel Washington was not in a place of high prominence. From the earliest days of his career, his searing magnetism, working in conjunction with his superlative skills as an actor, has made him into one of the most electrifying performers of his time—even when he is playing a thoroughly rotten and detestable person, he does it in such a compelling manner that he still manages to keep most audiences on his side despite the things that he says or does. For his latest film, “Roman J. Israel, Esq,” Washington has been given one of the biggest challenges of his career—dial down the charisma factor to practically zero and play a character that most people will be find to be genuinely off-putting throughout. Because Washington is a supremely talented actor, he actually manages to pull this considerable feat off but he is let down by a confused and meandering screenplay that doesn’t really seem to know what to do with his efforts.Washington plays the title character, a savant-like criminal defense attorney who has managed to maintain his 70s-style idealism (along with his wardrobe and Afro) while working at a small law firm in Los Angeles. Because his brusque and oddball demeanor would put off any jury in an instant, it is his partner who does the actual work in court while he toils away behind the scenes to craft the defense strategies. His carefully calibrated world is shattered one day when his partner suffers a fatal heart attack and his family decides to close down the money-losing firm with the help of George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner who has become a slick, high-priced lawyer at one of the city’s top firms. Recognizing Roman’s unique gifts and imagining how much money his firm can derive from his work, George offers Roman a job. Roman refuses, more or less on principle, but then discovers that idealistic lawyers of a certain age and without much in the way of people skills are not the hottest commodity on the job markets today. Even a local non-profit dedicated to social change is not interested in hiring him and when the leader of the group (Carmen Ejogo) has Roman speak to the group about what to do when arrested while protesting, even they reject Roman and his old school attitude for being insufficiently woke.
With nowhere else to go, Roman joins George’s firm and begins toiling away, desperate to find a case to which he can apply his firebrand approach. He thinks he has one when he is assigned to look into the case of a young man (Niles Fitch) who is being charged with the murder of a convenience store clerk even though it was a still-at-large acquaintance who actually pulled the trigger. When Roman takes it upon himself to deal with the district attorney regarding a plea, he blows the talks for good and is nearly fired as a result. Assuming that he will be let go when his contract runs out, Roman decides to take matters into his own hand and, using the information that he gleaned from his client, hands over the ID of the real killer to the relatives of the victim in exchange for the $100,000 reward they are offer—a move that, while not technically illegal, is a deeply questionable move to make. With that money, he immediately remakes virtually aspect of his life—he gets slick suits and a swank apartment and when he takes the social worker out for dinner, he eschews his usual peanut butter for four-star cuisine. Alas, the situation with the reward money comes back to haunt him in unexpected ways and forces Roman to have a confrontation between the person he has been and the one that he has quickly become.
In broad terms, “Roman J. Israel, Esq” is a legal drama but it is one that does not rely on wild courtroom confrontations in order to get its points across—there are only a couple of scenes that even enter a courtroom and they are as brief and anti-climactic as can be. This is an intriguing conceit on the part of writer-director Dan Gilroy, whose previous film was “NIghtcrawler,” and the early scenes are fairly promising. However, while it doesn’t fit the parameters of a typical courtroom drama, it doesn’t really replace those tropes with much of anything. Roman has the potential to be an interesting character but the film doesn’t really do much of anything with him. His grand moral and ethical shifts in character happen so quickly in both directions that it almost feels like parody, as if Gilroy were trying to do a legal variation of “Flowers for Algernon.”There are some interesting developments involving the side characters, especially regarding George and his own personal and professional evolution, but they never get a chance to go anywhere. Reportedly, Gilroy trimmed about 12 minutes from the film and restructured other parts after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Having not seen that variation of the film, I cannot say if the longer version was any clearer or better developed in certain areas but the narrative flaws in the film are so pronounced that I don’t think that anything other than a complete rewrite could have properly addressed them.
As I said, Washington is excellent in the way that he is able to successfully tamp down his innate charm and charisma—his Roman is the kind of guy that would inspire a java junkie to forego their morning cup of coffee if it meant standing in line for it behind him. From a technical perspective, his work is spot-on but when it comes to making him a character worth basing an entire movie around, it comes up short. The trouble is that we never get a chance to really know who Roman is or what really makes him tick—admittedly, part of this is because of the unique nature of the character he is playing but part of it is due to the fact that he, when all is said and done, is more of a caricature than a three-dimensional character. The funny thing is that while Washington is doing all of his overt acting, Colin Farrell manages to quietly and confidently steal every single scene that he appears in. When we first see his character, we think we know exactly what he is going to do and exactly how Farrell is going to play him and then we spend the rest of the film being pleasantly surprised on both counts. His work is so impressive that even though it is clearly a supporting part, it proves to be engrossing enough to throw the entire film out of balance since it doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with it.Because “Roman J. Israel, Esq” is an example of a style of filmmaking that has become increasingly rare these days—a mid-budget film aimed almost exclusively at an older audience—there is the temptation to cut it some slack in regards to its failures. I understand that rationale but as much as I wished that I liked it more than I did, the combination of a less-than-inspiring screenplay and a central character who plays more like a collection of tics than an believable person just ultimately did not work for me. It is not a total failure by any means but, unlike its title character, it proves itself to be far to willing to settle and move on instead of trying to do something riskier and more potentially rewarding.
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