Yes! A PG-13 movie that could have easily been an R! I know that someone was tempted. I know that there was probably a draft that contained the F-Bomb as much as it possibly could. But this movie didn't need to be R. I'm probably patting a studio middle man on the back pretty hard. He probably was looking at the bottom line, knowing that PG-13 movies tend to be more lucrative. But c'mon. This movie was PG-13 for a good reason. Geez, who am I anymore?
DIRECTOR: Dan Gilroy
Why am I so anxious to write a review for Roman J. Israel, Esq.? I think it probably comes down to the fact that I probably have the same opinion that everyone else has. I am so afraid to be hackneyed that I'm shirking my responsibility. I've watched so many movies since then. It's not like I've rested on my laurels over here. I tend to only write these reviews during my planning periods or my lunch breaks, depending how busy I am. I don't write on weekends or days off because I know that my kids don't really give me enough peace to develop any sense of flow. Well, I'm writing this at 12:10 in the morning just so I have some quiet in the house and that I can start catching up on the backlog of movies I've watched. Regardless, I will try to write the best review I can and not worry if I'm treading the same ground that others have. Besides, I don't know many people who have seen this movie anyway. Why am I worried about repeating what other critics have probably also said.
It's odd that a movie that has a 51% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes has any play whatsoever. I saw this trailer and thought it looked pretty Oscar-baity and it really is. Dan Gilroy, who I did not know wrote this and a couple of other great movies like Nightcrawler, knows what gets attention. When it got pretty panned critically, I thought that was going to be it. Then Denzel Washington was up for a Best Actor category and I thought that Denzel was starting to become like Meryl Streep. For those who don't know my beef with Meryl Streep, I think she gets nominated almost as a legacy thing. It is the polite version of the running gag. I think both Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington are great actors, but they aren't as great as the world makes them out to be. Last year, Meryl Streep drew my ire when she was nominated for Florence Foster Jenkins and that's where I lost it. She was terrible in that terrible movie and I started to lose faith in the nomination process. When I saw that Denzel was nominated for a movie with a 51% approval rating, I thought that this was the same deal. I am happy to say that both Meryl's and Denzel's respective nominations are thoroughly valid this year. I don't think either of them is going to win, but they both knocked out some pretty solid performances in their movies this time, so I'm going to give it to them. Considering that I watched this movie for Denzel Washington's performance, I suppose that might make a firm foundation for this criticism. Denzel Washington is the most interesting part of this movie. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a better movie than a 51% approval rating, but it isn't that much better than that. The movie is full of holes and flaws, which I'll talk about in a second. But Denzel doesn't see that in this movie. I'm going to give him credit where credit is due. I don't think I ever see Denzel Washington phoning in performances. He's better sometimes. He's worse other times. But I always feel like he is giving the performance of his life, regardless of success. In this case, I really think that Denzel Washington thought he was going to make one of the greatest movies of his career. There are a lot of elements that could have made Roman J. Israel a truly phenomenal film, but it's problems hold it back. Regardless, Denzel does a lot with what could be considered a stock character. The movie never calls Roman Israel autistic, per se, but it does definitely let us know that there is something going on with this character. We've seen Roman Israel in other forms and it can be really distracting when an actor has such a temptation in front of him. Many lesser actors (probably myself included if I ever had the opportunity) would lean heavily into the autism and let it guide every decision I make. I would telegraph the crap out of that character. Denzel doesn't really do that. He has his mannerisms and he lets the audience know that Roman can't make the same choices that most people could make. But he also retains the humanity in Roman Israel that makes him such a compelling character. He is sympathetic because he is never playing the Hallmark Upworthy version of the autistic lawyer. Rather, he is a lawyer with beliefs and integrity and a moral code who happens to function in a different headspace than the rest of us. That is what makes this movie super worth watching. Denzel Washington makes this character, who on the page is outside the norm appear absolutely normal. That is fascinating. His nomination totally makes sense because of the choices he makes. Occasionally, I do remember that I'm watching Denzel Washington rather than Roman J. Israel simply because Denzel Washington does rely on a bag of tricks. It is a really good bag of tricks, but it is a bag of tricks regardless.
The story is what is problematic. The movie is not quite sure what it wants to be and has a really clunky third act. The movie is founded on moral choices. Roman Israel is a good man who sees consistent corruption in the legal system and in the treatment of people of color in America. He has the legal know how to defend the defenseless, but not the legal charisma associated with most lawyers. As a framework, that works really well. Every time I stepped back from the movie, I really liked the whole forest. But it is when it gets close, that's when things fall apart. The movie should really be a character study sooner than it should be a legal drama or a formal narrative because the movie's character is far more interesting than the plot that is structured around this character. It never reaches the level of its basic premise and that power structure really highlights when flaws come into the movie. Like most tales about either inherently good or bad characters, there has to be a corrupting force to that moral ideology. Some element of chaos has to be thrown in there to make the character consider changing his or her way of life. With a grump like Scrooge, the ghosts show him the past, present, and future. For Roman Israel, it is the death of his partner and mentor that lets him explore the legal world without support. I love this idea so much. If the movie was just about him losing faith in a legal system, it would have been boring but good. Instead, the movie tacks on this story about how Roman makes money illegally and how that eventually comes to bite him in the butt. I like the idea that Roman Israel is corrupted by the world and I'm not saying that there's nothing there, but the A plot reads so much like a B plot that it is often distracting. Gilroy, who both wrote and directed the movie, really wants to explore the problems with the legal system, especially when it comes to criminal defense. There's this great scene that echoes my frustration with progressive cannibalism that everyone needs to watch. But the movie is composed of all these great scenes that are all character studies that it constantly interrupts the main focus, Roman himself. Instead, to bring it back to Roman's character being important, Denzel Washington often has to say these aphorisms that often have little content and simply sound wise. My daughter does the same thing. She is a very smart kid and knows what combinations of buzzwords make something sound smart. But if you really listen to Olivia or Roman Israel, you realize that these words just sound great but don't actually mean all that much.
The interesting theme running through the film that I haven't really seen is that corruption might actually be mutual and symbiotic. Roman is corrupted by a law firm that offers him far more money than he's actually been able to receive earlier. It is not like this is a new idea, that money and power corrupt. But what is new is that Roman tends to corrupt those around him with his goodness. Colin Ferrell, who I did not know was in this movie, goes from being sleazy rich guy lawyer to genuine good person by the end of this film. I really like that as a concept, that Roman is still accidentally doing good despite the loss of his soul. But it also doesn't make all the sense with the structure of the film. One thing that the movie keeps on accidentally proving is that Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not that effective as a lawyer. It is not the point of the movie. Roman keeps losing cases and clients because the movie is stressing how A) lazy the legal world really is to hard work and B) that Roman's social difficulties are a constant impediment to him. But that makes me wonder how he is that influential in this business. Roman never really seems to be winning cases, but in the course of three weeks he keeps failing upwards and it is only due to lucky breaks left and right. It doesn't really make a lot of sense and this eventually leads up to a really screwy third act. The entire movie really telegraphs the end of the movie. I'm really not spoiling anything if you've seen the trailer, but you know that the movie becomes a question of not if Roman is going to do the right thing in the end, but how and when he is going to do the right thing before the end. The movie gives Roman the most obvious character choices and solution to this problem that the final act of the film becomes an odd cliche. The subplot that the movie keeps reminding us is going to happen, happens. Roman is going to make the decision to do the right thing, and in the most obvious manner possible. The tone is clear that things aren't going to end up roses for Roman because everything else falls in place for him in the middle of the movie. We've seen these tropes too many times before, which makes this movie kind of boring by the end. Even Denzel Washington's performance starts becoming a little one note by the end because there isn't much for him to do besides question the same obvious answer that we've all come to before this point. It seems like the movie was shot without a final act and that the last part had to be written on the fly. There is even this questionable romantic subplot that was thrown in there just to give the moral element gravity and it doesn't even fit a little bit. That chemistry isn't there because the story is not about that, but it still somehow made the movie.
The thing is that I kind of liked it as a whole. I paid attention the whole time, but I knew that I kept seeing things that made me just raise the "nope" flag over and over again. I probably liked this movie better than most people. I'd go as far as to say that it got a 70% approval rating from me (which means 70% of my body and mind liked it because Rotten Tomatoes is an aggregate rating site). But is it a good movie? No, probably not. If you are hardcore into legal jargon, you might dig it. Or if you are Derek, you'd probably find all the faults with it because it seems to wear these faults on its sleeves. Regardless, this movie is a matter of personal tastes, not objective value.
And now to go to bed...at 12:46. Sorry, Lauren.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.