Roman J. Israel, Esq.
|Release Date||November 22, 2017|
The sophomore outing of Dan Gilroy, who you might remember as the writer and director of 2014’s grimy, propulsive local news thriller, Nightcrawler. That film starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a ghoulish videographer. In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington plays a civil rights lawyer and an activist who looks, thinks and behaves like he just stepped out of the late-70s. Both are films about enigmatic protagonists played forcefully by great actors. But Nightcrawler was the best film of its year; Roman J. Israel, Esq. most certainly is not.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. isn’t very good?
I didn’t hate it, but I had no patience for it whatsoever. The point of it all, I think, is to reckon with how the American justice system so frequently fails to be just, which is a worthy ambition. But I can’t think of a worse, more convoluted way of approaching the subject than what we get here. And it starts with the hero.
It’s just as well Denzel Washington sees Roman Israel as a character, because the film – which is titled after how he refers to himself – doesn’t at all. He’s the personification of old-fashioned idealism; a mouthpiece for criticism of corporate, immoral modernity, and a celebration of generations past. He wears baggy three-piece suits, sports an afro, and is never seen without his fuzzy orange headphones. A lesser actor would have treated him as the thoughtless caricature that he is, but Washington is committed, as always. I just wish the movie was as dedicated to the role as he was.
What’s it about?
Mostly one thing after another. It begins in medias res, with Roman decrying how he betrayed his own values in a legal document that we see typed out on screen in perplexing length. Then it rewinds three weeks. Our journey from there jerks in strange directions. Roman locks legal horns with corporate attorneys; he throws himself against the pillars of the American court system; he briefly becomes, for some reason, a criminal; and he eventually lightens up enough to fall in love. His reasons for doing any of those things aren’t particularly clear, and your reasons to care about watching him do them are foggier still.
Initially, Roman is a civil-rights lawyer in a two-person firm. His partner is the face of the company, while Roman handles the administrative busywork. There’s a reason for this: Roman has what’s known as Movie Autism. This is a common disorder which means that Roman has an encyclopaedic brain, and a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but whatever’s wrong with him remains unnamed and unexplained. Other symptoms sometimes include excessive neatness and making a lot of lists, but Roman’s is just a minor case. Either way, it keeps him out of court.
Oh, someone saw the trailers. Until his partner has a heart attack and slips into a coma. Roman’s supposed to turn up at court and just file for continuances, but he’s fed up of how the law has metastasized to better punish young, black man in various pernicious ways. It’s implied that this, more than his social cluelessness, is why he hasn’t ventured into a courtroom for so many years. The first time he does, he’s almost immediately held in contempt of court for arguing against the use of sentencing maximums to terrify his young client into accepting a plea bargain.
So then the film becomes a legal drama?
Not really, no. Despite his obvious intelligence and legal acumen, Roman isn’t suited to the courtroom. He then tries to get back into public activism, meeting with a non-profit organizer, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who he develops a weird relationship with that you won’t care about. He eventually ends up working in corporate law under George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick legal shark whom the script sometimes treats like the smug embodiment of all the things Roman hates about the American justice system, and other times positions as his cheerleading sidekick. In the middle of all this he also makes a decision that nets him a ton of cash and few scenes of fronting, but it’s honestly too ludicrous and nonsensical to bother talking about.
What’s the main issue here?
The most general is how much the screenplay drastically underserves Washington’s performance. To be more specific, it doesn’t know what to do with him. Or what his appeal is, even. This is plenty of movie – 130 long minutes – but too much of it is spent on uninteresting details or quirky “on-the-spectrum” character moments that don’t amount to anything. There’s too much story for the movie to handle but not enough to fill the running time.
The film’s at its best when it chronicles Roman’s efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar world. (He spent 36 years behind the same desk in the same office.) His brief stint in court has some poignancy to it because you get a sense there of what this man believes in, and the convictions he has held onto while everything beyond his tiny desk has rotted and decayed. Better yet is his initial interview at Maya’s non-profit, where he’s aghast at their limp-wristed methods of modern protest, and in amongst his stammering and crying manages to inadvertently offend half the staff.
Why isn’t there more of this stuff?
That’s a good question, and I’d like to ask Dan Gilroy something similar. I imagine his answer would be that a man toiling against institutional racism doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. What he elects to do instead is devote an absurd amount of time to sub-plots that either don’t go anywhere or are too stupid to be believed. The film is littered with them. And nonsensical side-stories like that require characters to either be inserted and then removed all of a sudden, like cardboard fairground targets, or behave completely differently from one scene to the next. Farrell’s character is the worst offender, swaying from deeply sympathetic to glibly dismissive with no real warning or reason, but almost everyone besides Roman does what the script needs them to do rather than thinks and behaves how a human being might.
It doesn’t work. There’s a great performance here, and under the surface Roman J. Israel, Esq. has something important on its mind. But it’s also a dizzying, overly ambitious film that hamstrings itself by trying to buck convention. It’s a cowardly little thing that lacks the conviction to be about what it really wants to be about. My only recommendation is that you avoid it.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.