Roman J. Israel, Esq.

RomanJIsraelEsq-rev Roman J. Israel, Esq.  (2017)    Columbia/Drama    RT: 117 minutes    Rated PG-13 (language, some violence)    Director: Dan Gilroy    Screenplay: Dan Gilroy    Music: James Newton Howard    Cinematography: Robert Elswit    Release date: November 22, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom.

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 After the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September to critical scorn, the producers did some serious re-editing, shortening it by 12 minutes in the process. It shows and not in a good way. In short, it’s a mess. It looks like the editors threw scenes together in some random order in hopes it would be an improvement. I didn’t see the original cut so I can’t say for sure but my guess would be that Roman J. Israel, Esq. in its current form is the opposite of an improvement. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to be about. The jumbled narrative renders it incomprehensible. Certain actions by the protagonist make no sense. Worst of all, it contains the worst performance of Denzel Washington’s entire career. It’s almost bad enough to warrant the Academy demanding that he return his two Oscars immediately.

 RomanJIsraelEsqWashington plays the titular character, a lawyer who’s either on the autism spectrum or a savant. The movie never makes it clear. On the one hand, he has poor interpersonal skills and appears unable to read social cues. On the other hand, he has every number of every statute memorized and can rattle them off without so much as a brief pause. He’s either a Sheldon Cooper (come on, everybody knows he has Asperger’s) or a Rain Man. Anybody looking for greater understanding of autism will not find it here.

 Due to his condition (I presume), the lead partner in Israel’s law firm has never sent him to court. He keeps him busy in the office doing research, drafting motions and writing briefs. That all changes when the older man suffers a debilitating heart attack that leaves him in a coma. It turns out the firm is broke and will soon be shut down leaving Israel without a job. He goes to work for the cocky lawyer (Farrell, In Bruges) brought in to dissolve the firm. Let’s just say it’s not exactly a dream job.

 In the opening scenes, we learn that Israel has done something unethical. He’s typing up a brief in which he calls himself a hypocrite for going against his own belief system and requests immediate disbarment. In short, he divulges confidential information a large sum of money. Why he does this isn’t clear but I’m thinking it was out of frustration over the new direction his life has taken. People with autism don’t react to change very well. Again, this is just a guess.

 Other things happen in Roman J. Israel, Esq. He meets civil activist Maya (Ejogo, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) when he applies for a position at her organization. He doesn’t get the job but she does ask him out on a date, one that isn’t a complete disaster. She also asks him to speak at a community meeting; that IS a disaster, it ends with him storming out after a feminist hurls the f-word at him. At some point in the movie, things turn around for Israel at his new firm; his colleagues start treating him the same way people treated Peter Sellers’ character in Being There. It just comes off as weird. Let’s see, what else. He does this unethical thing which ends up landing him in trouble with a new client directly affected by what he did. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Israel carries this huge attaché case around with him everyplace he goes. In it is this brief he’s been working on for several years. It will change the way people of color are treated by the courts. We don’t learn any more about it than that. This should have served as the movie’s main focus point.

 One of the biggest problems with Roman J. Israel, Esq. is that there’s no sense of cohesion between subplots or scenes. The story jumps around a lot and doesn’t explain much of anything. We only have a general idea what his brief concerns. The relationship between Israel and his former boss is never adequately explained; the makers could have at least added flashbacks showing him as a father figure to Israel. We learn next to nothing about Israel’s background other than a few photos on the wall showing his involvement in civil activism in the 70s. Where are his parents? What was his childhood like? How did he manage to get into law school? Plenty can be inferred but that doesn’t really cut it, does it?

 I checked Washington’s IMDb filmography not once but twice and I can’t find a single bad performance. He’s been in a few subpar movies- e.g. Heart Condition, Virtuosity- but even in those, he gave it his all. He’s never been terrible.... until now. His portrayal of autism is actually insulting. His character never feels real. Israel is more of a caricature with the tics, panic episodes and outdated look; when I saw his Afro and double-breasted suit in the trailer, I thought Roman J. Israel, Esq. was set in the 70s. The most definitive thing about him is his taste in music- i.e. old school jazz and soul. His phone ringtone is Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’”. The soundtrack is the only good thing about the movie which apparently was shot on 35mm film giving it an old school look.

 The film’s other performances aren’t much better. There’s very little in the way of character development. Farrell does little more than bully or praise Israel depending on what scene it is; his character’s behavior is inconsistent. Ejogo’s only function here seems to be admiring Israel for..... what, his past involvement with civil causes? Being a functioning member of society despite his limitations? She has a big speech on their dinner date during which she cries; Israel barely reacts to it. Hers might be the best performance in Roman J. Israel, Esq. but it still isn’t much.

 Oh how far the mighty have fallen. No, I’m not talking about Washington. I’m referring to writer-director Dan Gilroy whose previous film Nightcrawler is brilliant. It made my top ten list in 2015. I guess Roman J. Israel, Esq. is what you call a case of sophomore slump. It’s not only convoluted, it’s boring. Nothing of real interest happens in the movie unless you count what happens at the end which is another problem I have with this movie. I’ll tread lightly here as I don’t want to drop any spoilers but I will ask a question: does the character/movie earn it? The makers fail to make a compelling case since they failed to make us care about the guy. The Verdict, it’s NOT! I object to this entire movie. Roman J. Israel, Esq. should be declared a mistrial and dismissed with prejudice.

SPECIAL NOTE: The trailer is misleading. Scenes that appear to be played for laughs aren’t funny in the movie. Any laughs you get from Roman J. Israel, Esq. are purely and unequivocally unintentional.  

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