Friday, November 24, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: He deserves better

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Denzel Washington’s work here is sublime: absolutely one of the finest — if not the finest — roles of his already impressive career.

It’s a shame writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film isn’t worthy of such talent.

In his own mind, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is
one of the finest legal minds ever to stride Los Angeles'
mean, inner-city streets. And he's right ... but he's also
inherently unable to wield such talent.
Gilroy’s résumé is dominated by action-oriented popcorn flicks such as Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Island. Nothing indicates he has the sensibilities for a quiet, deeply intimate drama of this nature ... and, in fact, he doesn’t. Worse yet, his story gets its momentum from a plot contrivance that is blindingly unbelievable: an event we simply cannot accept when it happens, and which taints everything that follows.

Washington, brilliant as he is, cannot overcome such a narrative blunder.

He stars as the title character, a lawyer and legal scholar with a savant’s gift for tireless research and perfect recall: the “unseen half” of a two-man firm headed by celebrated civil rights attorney William Henry Jackson. The latter is the front man, who for nearly four decades has garnered all the fame for meticulously precise courtroom arguments that Roman prepared behind the scenes.

This has been sufficient for Roman, who has greatly valued the voice that Jackson has given to their shared passion for defending the disenfranchised.

We never meet Jackson; the film begins as he suffers a fatal heart attack one morning, off camera, leaving Roman with the necessity of handling the day’s case load. Just show up and request continuances, instructs the firm’s devoted secretary, Vernita (Lynda Gravátt). Don’t do — or say — anything else.

This seems an odd request, although not for viewers who’ve been paying attention. Roman’s attire is decades out of date, his manner of walking awkward and ungainly, his head bobbing slightly like a nervous bird. He’s never without the massive, battered briefcase that bulges with his most prized accomplishment: the career-long construction of a class action lawsuit with the potential to establish federal precedent ... if only somebody will co-author and file it for him.

He uses far too many words to answer simple questions, his attention forever wandering, his gaze — in the presence of other people — oddly unfocused.

I find it intriguing that this film’s press notes avoid the use of the terms autistic or spectrum, because there’s absolutely no doubt that Roman is such an individual. He has no filter and is blunt — and truthful — to the point of cruelty: self-righteously idealistic to a degree that prevents compromise on any level. Small wonder Jackson carefully kept him in a back office.

But it’s equally important to recognize that this was an act of kindness on the part of Roman’s suddenly deceased partner. Jackson gave Roman both employment and a voice, even if somebody else did the speaking: precious, generous gifts that he might not have found elsewhere. With Jackson gone, Roman has no outlet for the causes — his passion for the dispossessed and under-represented — that have been his entire life.

It gets worse. In very short order, Jackson’s niece (Amanda Warren, as Lynn) confronts Roman with the news that the firm has been financially underwater for years, kept alive solely via occasional cases supplied by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a younger attorney who heads a large law firm, and whose hard-charging ambition has buried any sense of moral obligation that he once might have possessed.

George has been hired to liquidate the two-man firm, which leaves Roman without a job.

George is the opposite of Roman: slick, smug and superficial. He views law with the corporate indifference of an automobile assembly line: Charge high fees on the basis of “top-quality work,” and then belie that promise by shuttling clients through the system as rapidly as possible. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Farrell is well-cast as George; the actor exudes false charm, with smiles that never reach his eyes. But he’s not a one-note villain; George respected Jackson, and we detect the remnants of a human being buried within the expensively tailored suits. George’s initial impatience with Roman notwithstanding, the younger man perceives — admires — something that stirs those remnants.

Not that it matters, at least initially. Roman wants nothing to do with the likes of George Pierce, believing that his experience and legal talent will be more than enough to secure employment elsewhere.

What follows is both the hardest part of the movie to watch, and the best showcase for the totality of Washington’s performance. Part of the characterization is physical: a notable weight gain, the application of bad teeth, the crazed hair, the unflattering glasses. But that’s just surface; Washington’s deportment is just as arresting as his twitchy, never-quite-settled presence.

His manner of speaking is the most striking: the robotic recitation of legal precedents, offset by a tendency to stutter when nervous or out of his comfort zone (which is frequently, as matters progress). And a bull-headed conviction that he can make people believe him — accept him, respect him — if they’ll simply listen to him.

When, in fact, he’s so socially inept that he alienates almost everybody. Within seconds.

Watching Roman attempt to get a job is heartbreaking, as is listening to him phone a Los Angeles complaint hotline each evening, leaving a message that cites ordinances prohibiting the noisy, 24/7 construction work taking place next to his tiny Skid Row apartment. Messages that are ignored, and obviously have been, for some time.

Ultimately, helplessly, left with no other options, Roman returns and accepts George’s job offer. This is when the film goes off the rails, although not merely for the clumsy manner in which George — who really should be more perceptive — attempts to integrate Roman into the firm.

Elsewhere, Roman has gained the sympathy and friendship of civil rights activist Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo). It’s certainly in Maya’s nature to be benevolent, but she carries this relationship much too far; despite Ejogo’s gentle, earnest performance, she simply can’t get us to believe the depth of faith that Maya places in Roman. We feel Gilroy’s manipulative touch.

But this isn’t Gilroy’s most egregious error; that comes from an act, on Roman’s part, that — let’s be clear — he would never, ever do. The film’s lengthy third act is a ticking time bomb that results from this clumsily orchestrated impulse. which simply isn’t — couldn’t be — in his nature. At which point, the film falls apart.

Worse yet, Gilroy compounds that felony with an eye-rolling, hearts-and-flowers epilogue that is pure fairy tale.

All of which is a genuine shame. Better writers could have concocted dozens of plotlines that would have been vastly superior showcases for Washington’s bravura performance. Instead, we’re left with this eminently forgettable, overly contrived and insufferably sudsy melodrama.

Case closed.

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