‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

Roman J. Israel - Still 2 -Denzel Washington  -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
The jury's still out.

Denzel Washington stars as a legal savant in director Dan Gilroy's second feature, a follow-up to 'Nightcrawler.'

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, a dark and dirty satire about the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture in today’s media, hit the sweet spot for many. It deftly blended ultra-cynicism with a realism distorted just enough to make it cult viewing. That originality and skillfulness set a high bar, one that Gilroy’s follow-up, legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq., struggles to surpass.

This nervy, admirably cerebral story — about a lawyer (Denzel Washington) trying to find a way to keep the flame of 1960s activism and idealism alight — has many fine and noble qualities. Just for starters, there’s a typically studied, finely calibrated performance from Washington, evocative use of downtown Los Angeles locations, a magnificent soundtrack of vintage funk and soul and a pleasingly retro use of punctuation in its title. Unfortunately, something at the center just doesn’t hold, and it flies apart over the course of 133 minutes into confusing shards of plot, legalese-heavy monologues and, perhaps most surprising of all given Gilroy’s bona fides, a touch of soggy sentimentality in the home stretch.

Although at a post screening Q&A in Toronto, Gilroy averred that he could conceive of no one but Washington taking the lead role (are directors contractually obliged to say that?), it’s not impossible to imagine this as a vehicle that might have worked at one point for the late Robin Williams, especially since the protagonist is just the kind of pure-hearted “holy fool” type Williams specialized in at one point.

As written, the character of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (he always introduces himself with every part of his name) is a bundle of semi-endearing contradictions: off-the-charts smarts with a savant’s ability to remember facts, dates and names, but unable to obey the niceties of social interaction, characteristics that clearly signal he’s on the autistic spectrum. One of the finer things about the film is that it makes no big deal out of this; the fact that Roman is not neurotypical is represented as no more remarkable than the fact that he’s black.

For a living, Roman works as the silent partner in a downtown law firm that specializes in criminal cases and pro-bono work representing L.A.’s poor denizens. William Jackson, the firm’s front man, whom we never really meet, does all the arguing in court and dealing with clients while Roman toils in the shadows, the real legal smarts in the firm, a fact he’s not shy about sharing. However, when William suffers a heart attack, Roman steps in to handle his cases, but is instructed by William’s niece and heir Lynn (Amanda Warren) to do nothing more than seek continuances. In other words, delay for time.

But Roman is a man out of time, someone who believes deeply in the principles fought for by the likes of activists like Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, who are commemorated by posters on the walls of his tawdry apartment, alongside shelves and shelves of LPs and multiple jars of Jif peanut butter. He can’t resist advising a young client (Niles Fitch), arrested for participating in an armed robbery that ended in a fatality, to take a particular legal course rather than just stall until William recovers.

Sadly, William doesn’t recover and soon Lynn brings in hotshot white lawyer George (Colin Farrell) to help Roman wind down the firm. Frustrated and still burning to help defend civil rights, Roman tries to get work with a non-profit outfit run by Maya (Carmen Ejogo, beautifully still and measured). The problem is he’s as out of step with the identity politics of the young volunteers at Maya’s center (especially the women who read his “politeness” as patronizing) as he is at George’s skyscraper-based firm where his three-inch afro, vintage raspberry suits and inability to make water cooler banter alienate his co-workers.

Although a case that goes badly south creates a danger that picks up pace as the film goes on, the script has probably three or four scenes too many where Roman thrashes out points of principle with various people around him like Maya, Lynn or George. As if to compensate, spiky, well-observed scenes are inserted from time to time, like one where Roman and Maya’s discovery of a seemingly dead man in the street nearly erupts into a potentially violent confrontation with two cops, or later another scene where Roman is attacked by a crackhead on the Bunker Hill steps.

More importantly, at the midpoint of the movie, Roman decides for not terribly well articulated reasons to try out what it’s like to break the rules and get a little dirty, a gambit that sees him taking the metro to Santa Monica to splurge ill-gotten gains on a couple of new suits, bathing trunks and maple-turkey-flavored donuts, all set to a stirring cut from Funkadelic’s "Cosmic Slop."

Indeed, there’s a kind of psychedelic vibe about the film, a skewy kind of wooziness enhanced by John Gilroy’s percussive editing and Robert Elswit’s dreamy, off-kilter cinematography (an overhead shot of Roman gamboling in the ocean is a particular delight). Elswit’s involvement might also account for the way that the recent film it most feels like is Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent mess of an L.A. movie, Inherent Vice. Like the latter, this won’t be to everyone’s taste and may turn out yet to be one of those films that needs multiple viewings to reveal its true nature.

Production companies: A Sony Pictures Releasing release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of Escape Artists, Bron Studios, Cross Creek Pictures, LStar Capital, Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Macro production
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom
Director/screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Producers: Jennifer Fox, Todd Black, Denzel Washington
Executive producers: Betsy Danbury, Derek Dauchy, Aaron L. Gilbert, Poppy Hanks, Charles D. King, Alex Lebovici, Steve Matzkin, Steve Ponce, Ben Ross, Kim Roth, Sarah Schroeder-Matzkin, Lauren Selig
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: John Gilroy
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Victoria Thomas
No rating, 133 minutes