Monday, November 27, 2017

MAN OUT OF TIME: a review of "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
** (two stars)

At this time, we have a case where the performance far outranks the movie.

In the promotional trailers for "Roman J. Israel, Esq.," the new film from Writer/Director Dan Gilroy, I was happily intrigued, partially due to the odd, throwback appearance by Denzel Washington and partially due to the fact that the trailers smartly did not give away any pertinent information regarding precisely what the film was even about--unlike most trailers these days which seem to be more than happy to deliver a truncated version of the entire film they are advertising. For this film, it was a promotion that made me lean forwards in high curiosity as I wanted to know just who Washington was portraying and what was this person experiencing.

Now having seen the finished film, I am underwhelmed. Again, we have a film this year that is not necessarily a "bad film," so to speak. I deeply appreciate the effort of Dan Gilroy in creating a character unlike one that I really have seen and I am more than thankful to have been witness to Denzel Washington deliver yet another fully lived in, three dimensional, award caliber performance, again reminding us that he remains a national treasure as he is one of our finest American actors without question.

What is disappointing, however, is that "Roman J. Israel, Esq.," is a thematically complex, adult themed film that is ultimately one that is not terribly involving, making for an experience that feels to be almost in conflict with itself as the film feels to be at arms length while the performance of Denzel Washington is fully engaged, unique and powerfully magnetic.

In keeping with the spirit of the film's trailers, I will try to keep the plot description brief. Denzel Washington stars in the titular role of "Roman J. Israel, Esq." an idealistic defense attorney and legal savant in the over-burdened Los Angeles legal system who has spent his adult life working as the "behind-the-scenes" half of a tiny two partner law firm.

When his law partner, a civil rights icon and who was also once Roman's law professor has a heart attack, Roman is soon recruited by the high-powered attorney George Pierce (an excellent Colin Farrell)  also another of the famed professor's former students, to join his firm. Additionally, Roman  begins a tentative relationship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a younger civil rights activist.

Through a series of events which rise in their turbulence, Roman's life is upended as he is forced to make moral choices that just may run in conflict with the activism and ideals that have defined his life's purpose.

While the film does indeed contain some elements of a crime thriller here and there, Dan Gilroy's "Roman J  Israel, Esq," is not a film driven by its plot. What we have is a detailed character study of a man confronting and rolling the dice against his own moral barometer and facing the consequences of his actions which may or may not run against every piece of who he has built his life becoming and believing himself to be. It is a quieter film. A soulful film that possesses moments of tension, sequences of intensity but it is not a cinematic pot boiler whatsoever. This is not a criticism. It is just a description of the type of film it is should you choose to see it for yourselves.

The very best element of the entire film is the performance by Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq., as he announces himself to every character he meets within the film that bears his name. On a pure visual level, I am unable to recall a film where Washington has ever appeared like the character he portrays this time, a figure who looks as if he is a relic from the early to mid 1970's--from his archaic clothing to his over-sized out of date glasses, to his large, natural afro--transplanted into 2017. Even with Roman's only concessions to modern times, from his cellphone to his ever present headphones and I-pod, which contains some 8000 songs, all of which are politically minded soul and funk selections, are augmented and therefore stamped with the ghosts of his past.

Yes, Roman's appearance is clearly a reflection of his activist spirit but what feels deeper to me is that the character's own soul as a human being feels as if it has not evolved past the civil rights struggles of the 1960's and 1970's. And so, in the 21st century, he carries onwards like a Don Quixote figure, navigating the world fully against the grain, embittered by what he feels to be a societal (yet specifically an African-American) disregard (or even dismissal) for the civil rights battles of the past and present. Essentially, Roman J. Israel, Esq. shoulders  himself with a idiosyncratic brand of integrity that the world clearly is not remotely interested in or even desires. So, over the course of the film, Roman is presented with a moral choice, a challenge not only to his integrity but to the moral arc of the universe's sense of justice as he perceives it to be. And in doing so, Dan Gilroy's "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is a journey of what happens to a man when he takes this cosmic roll of the dice.

With Denzel Washington's performance, we again ware witness to a Master Class of acting from the inside out, where we actually do not observe Washington acting, per se. We regard Denzel Washington in a state of becoming and therefore, being. How incredible to watch Washington in a role that is worlds away from the furious and ferocious swagger and bombast from the outstanding "Fences" (2016) just one short year ago. With "Roman J. Israel, Esq." truly regard the man's posture, his gait, his paunch. The way he seems to be folded over and crumpled. How his insecurities feel decidedly childlike and all-knowing to an adult late in life who has long carried a certain amount of baggage. The matter-of-fact nature of his own self-perception, from attributes to his failings is often disarming in its directness.

And then, there is even yet another layer to consider to this character and Denzel Washington's performance.

While there is not a moment within the film that specifically addresses the concept, Denzel Washington has proclaimed in interviews that his character is someone who is highly functioning on the Autism spectrum. But rest assured, what we are given is nothing like what was seen in "The Accountant" (2016)! Trust me, there is not one moment in "Roman J. Israel, Esq." that is remotely pulpy. But the autism of and within the character of Roman gives us yet another window to look through as we regard him and how he views the world in which he exists. And in doing so, we are given a more precise look into a man's sense of alienation, isolation, idealism, virtuousness, bull-headedness, reserve and resolve and even his own sense of paranoia. In doing so, Denzel Washington is miraculous on every conceivable level.

Sadly, Dan Gilroy has not given this most unique character a story that could serve as his equal. Yes, I am more than thankful that Gilroy has created an original film that is unapologetically made for adults. But that being said, being original and unapologetically made for adults does not necessarily equate itself with being dry and drowsy. And unfortunately, even Denzel Washington's outstanding performance cannot single-handedly lift this film from being restlessly dry and as drowsy as a mid Sunday afternoon nap on the couch. Certainly, I had no need for Gilroy to jazz up the proceedings. To generate prefabricated and overcooked material and approaches that would have undercut the integrity of his film. But as it is, I wished there was some sort of fire in the belly.

In many ways, "Roman J. Israel, Esq." reminded me greatly of another corporate drama/thriller that left me cold initially and that film happened to be the George Clooney starring "Michael Clayton" (2007), which was incidentally written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy's brother!

That film was also one on first view, I appreciated for its adult nature but it did leave me cold. It was only during a second viewing where the pieces snapped into place, thus revealing a work of excellence. Perhaps "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is also that kind of a film, the type that does not fully reveal itself the very first time. Who knows? Maybe one day when the film reaches cable television, I may pull it up again and see if my reaction remains the same or otherwise.

But for now, all I can go on is what the film left me with as I exited the theater. A sharp character study fueled by a performance that demands the fullest of your attention that is trapped in a movie unable to keep it.

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