Autistic I Am, Esq.
Denzel Washington is one of my favorite actors to see working today. He’s incredibly charismatic and knows how to deliver strong emotional beats in even insipid affair like The Equalizer or The Magnificent Seven (2016). I’m not saying he can save a film all on his own, but he’s still intriguing to watch act nonetheless. So it was definitely a good thing that the director of the pretty solid Nightcrawler cast Denzel in Roman J. Israel, Esq, because I would be tearing this film apart like yesterday’s disastrous period piece.
Our story follows the titular Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), a brilliant legal mind and former civil rights activist, as his professional career is turned upside down. The face and breadwinner of Roman’s law firm winds up in a coma, and a younger hot shot attorney called George Pierce (Colin Farrell) takes over all of the firm’s cases, leaving Israel without a job. Pierce becomes fascinated with Roman’s genius and offers him a position on Pierce’s high-end legal team, but Roman is far from a people’s person and ends crossing other members of the law firm and even puts the company in danger. Meanwhile, Roman tries to go back to his roots as a civil rights attorney with a non-profit lead by Maya (Carmen Ejogo), but finding no money in the venture; the autistic attorney breaks attorney-client privilege and discovers a way to enrich himself based on a former client’s communication. As Roman tries to mold a new life for himself, his mistake comes back to haunt him in the worst way imaginable.
Once again this year, we have a story that is an absolute mess. It wavers wildly between a character study, a legal drama, and then finally a crime thriller in the last 25 minutes of the piece before shrugging it’s shoulders with a completely unearned denouement (not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say I muttered “bullshit” in the theater). The story is so unfocused that I was not exactly certain what kind of film this was trying to be. As in I didn’t know if the director, Dan Gilroy, was doing the Nightcrawler thing again and having you follow a repulsive character doing heinous but intriguing acts; or if he was simply trying to make a message movie bemoaning about the plight of activists trying to change the world with little to reward them. The problem with the former is that the film tries (and fails) to make your protagonist sympathetic and even one that several people admires despite a wealth of knowledge that he’s prone to messing up badly. And the problem the latter is this “unappreciated hero of the underprivileged” only really comes into focus when Denzel and Carmen Ejogo share screen time together, and even then, they’re spending more time flirting rather than trying to help others.
The lack of theme and the lack of story drive are only exacerbated by the behavior of the rest of the cast surrounding Roman’s character, who all act WAY too damn tolerable of his behavior. Perhaps this is the attorney in me talking, but a guy like Roman J. Israel would be kicked out of a law firm within a week and a State Bar would definitely not tolerate his actions in and outside of court either. But even if I were to accept the movie world’s logic, I still don’t buy that any of the other characters would put up with Roman the way they do. Colin Farrell’s character, in particular, stands out to me as perhaps having the patience of a saint. Initially introduced as a stereotypical big shot attorney, he’s slowly shown to have a large degree of humanity and passion for legal advocacy outside of a desire to enrich himself. But even with a big heart, he’s way too damn quick to forgive Roman in pissing off his clients, his other attorneys, and especially in one damning instance that implicates his firm in a malpractice suit.
But when the film isn’t talking about how pitiful Roman is working in the high end law firm world, the movie decides to put Roman on a soap box and allow him to espouse his beliefs on major shortcomings in the criminal justice system. Now as an attorney, he was raising some truly intriguing points that I believe even non-lawyers would find fascinating, because it deals with very real problems facing criminal prosecutions in the United States. Unfortunately, Roman’s legal theory is so poorly explained and so poorly communicated that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about his endgame, so I doubt lay people will fare any better. Additionally, the film treats Roman’s stated goal as a mere theory and nothing more, so you hear him talk about how much it sucks for the underclass but he never presents any real solutions. Just barking fluffy nonsense that his character accuses other activists of doing.
I grew to resent the film more and more as it kept going, but the only thing that prevented me from checking out completely was Denzel Washington’s performance as the title character. It’s considerably different from the usual swagger he introduces for several characters that he’s played over the years, and it’s instead a much more subdued performance of a man who’s tried so hard for so long to the right thing before finally succumbing to the temptations of a more lucrative lifestyle. While the film itself handles the character arc poorly, Washington himself does his best to ground the alteration into something far more believable, thereby covering up many of the film’s glaring faults. I wouldn’t be surprised if Denzel will get nominations for his performance, even if we’re dealing with an already busy lead actor category this year.
To me, Dan Gilroy really dropped the ball here. I don’t know if he had assistance during Nightcrawler reigning in more negative instincts, but he really does need less “yes men” around him next time around. His script occasionally has some decent lines, but it mostly rambles on and on while his story structure is an absolute train wreck. Thankfully, he does work well with actors and his cinematography is decent enough to avoid the specter of incompetence, but he needs a few more revisions on his screenplay when someone offers him money again.
If it wasn’t for Denzel, I’d be rating this film as SOME OL’ BULLSHIT. But against all odds, he saves the film from the bowels of hell, so I’ll give this a very, very low…