Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is a Nuanced Morality Tale That Could Use a Little Something More

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.
The city of Los Angeles has a certain reputation in cinema. As the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself has suggested, it's a place where seedy crime goes to flourish nihilistic action films or even apocalyptic narratives. So, for director Dan Gilroy to strip these elements down to human dramas is almost revelatory. In his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Nightcrawler, he has created a Los Angeles that's full of lawyers conflicted with their own personal drives. At the center is Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington): a man whose reputation is as curious as the name he introduces himself as. It's a hurdle of sorts, and one that holds him back from being the type of leader he wishes to be. In this story, Gilroy creates a west coast mythology of corruption not of the city, but of the self, and it's a slow and calculating journey with plenty of wit and power behind every detail.

Roman is a man thrust into unfortunate circumstances following his partner's descent into a coma. For as charismatic an actor as Washington is, he gives Roman an understated quality as a disheveled man of the people, whose outfits scream lower class and his antisocial behavior drives him further and further into an outdated mentality. For a man wanting to better himself, he's stuck in a time when activism was different. He almost dreams of being the type of lawyer that Washington could've played in the 80's and 90's, but has grown too old to achieve it. Around him is the conflicting landscape of a ghetto and upper class people, driving past each other on their way to court or to any variety of local shops. The journey that Roman is about to take is one where he must determine who he is. Is he a man of the people, or does he want to finally be taken seriously at the risk of losing that?

The film was sold as a bit more upbeat than it actually is. While there's comedic moments, it's a drama that's centered around inner struggles, where Roman is seen wondering how to follow his conscience. It's far from the predictable court room drama it could be, instead choosing to focus on small character moments that emphasize points of speculation. There isn't a moment of shock on par with Jake Gyllenhaal's unnerving Nightcrawler performance. In fact, the lack of vanity in Washington's character doesn't come across as effectively until the third act when it becomes something unnatural, something that's not anything like the Roman that the film has built. In this case, Washington's performance is literally physical and is more in how he carries himself. There isn't a moment that captures awe quite like his recent work in Fences. Instead, it is a role that requires more of a challenge from the audience. Can they see into Roman's soul? Is it even there at a certain point? 

What's most appealing about the film is that it's not a convenient narrative, or one that plays out in a satisfying manner. It's unconventional in just the right way to express the struggles of Roman's life as a man who wants to lead a class action lawsuit for criminal reform. His miserable glance shows a man who's beaten down, unable to be taken seriously and instead goes down paths that aren't controversial until hindsight kicks in. In Los Angeles, it's difficult to differentiate the cultural and social divides, yet Gilroy manages to do so with a certain depth that goes into small decisions, such as Roman's outdated love of flip phones and preference to phone calls over e-mails. He's a man of a different time in a city that's at odds with its own architecture. Luckily for Gilroy, he still shoots it all so beautifully that it all compliments each other nicely.

In some ways, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a bit too understated in how it approaches the story. It lacks a great character moment that elevates Washington's performance. Instead, it exists to present ideas of a culture that is at odds with itself. Nothing seems to be convenient in the narrative, and that includes pacing. The trajectory is more idealistic than plot driven, and it lulls the story at times. It's not enough to derail it, but this film is more of a tonal love letter to the people inhabiting Los Angeles than one that tries to condemn it. Maybe in time Gilroy will make an entire saga of what it means to be alive and working in Los Angeles in the 21st century. One could hope, as he shows some promise over his directorial career. For now, this is a decent followup, though not necessarily one that has the same immediacy as Nightcrawler.

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