Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE FORMIDABLE DENZEL WASHINGTON ALMOST ERADICATES THE FLAWS OF ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Denzel Washington in the title role of ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (copyright 2017)

Is there any actor working today who exhibits the power that Denzel Washington does onscreen? No matter what the role, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And even when he’s playing negative characters like Alonzo, the crooked cop in TRAINING DAY or Troy, the self-delusional dad in FENCES, he imbues his characters with such substance and gravitas that you can’t help but be drawn to them, even if they’re ginormous pricks. Now, he’s back on the big screen, playing a borderline savant lawyer as the title character in the just released ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., and he’s still commanding every scene, driving the story, and almost eradicating the flaws in the screenplay. Almost.

Washington plays Israel, a behind-the-scenes lawyer working in a two-man law office fronted by a flamboyant and storied senior partner. When his mentor takes ill and lands in the hospital in a vegetative state, Israel starts to flounder. The smart but sheltered counselor has little courtroom experience, and he rubs most people the wrong way with his quirky and antisocial behavior. All of that strikes George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the high-priced lawyer given the task of shutting down the office when the senior partner finally dies, as offensive. He and Israel behave like oil and water almost immediately as the battle between the rich and righteous heats up.

Pierce used to be idealistic, but now he's so oily he practically glides into every room he enters. Still, he does see traces of his former idealistic self in Israel’s romanticism and tries to employ Israel. Israel is pigheaded though, and has no time for the corporate mindset, so he hits the bricks on his own. He searches for his own way, an honorable way, handing out his card to every potential client that comes along.

Farrell is formidable in his role as Pierce, but few can ever match Washington onscreen. Israel may be back on his heels in their scenes, but Washington is so strong that his Israel is never quite the hopeless eccentric that Gilroy’s script wants us to believe the character is. Part of that is simply because Washington is too savvy and shrewd of an actor for us to ever fully buy some of the goofier aspects of his Israel. The part may call for ill-fitting clothing, a heavy-footed manner, even obsessive face scratching - but Washington comes shy of making Israel 100% believable. Even when the character obsessively makes the same peanut butter and honey sandwich every day for lunch, the audience might be inclined to think that's not such a bad idea. That's how smart Washington comes off onscreen.

Still, the story tries gamely to portray Israel as a lost soul, wandering the streets of LA, too beleaguered or broke to even lease a car for transport. We're asked to believe that the veteran lawyer was existing on a meager $500 a week at his old job. That not only seems criminal but begs the question of whether Israel was ever clever enough to ask for a cost-of-living increase, let alone a raise. How did a brilliant mind accept that? Even the script starts to have trouble selling Israel as that clueless.

Then, as Israel tries to find gainful employment, his idealism leads him towards jobs where there is no money. He interviews with a civil liberties firm, but leaves when he realizes they can’t even pay him what he used to get as his former weekly compensation. At least Maya (Carmen Eyogo), the woman who spearheads the do-gooder practice, respects his history and scolds a co-worker who turns up his nose at Israel’s quirky idealism. (“We’re standing on his shoulders”, she reminds her fellow Millennial.)

Maya becomes a champion of Israel’s, inviting him to speak at a community gathering of others who are politically conscious from the neighborhood. She also becomes the story’s quasi-love interest, even though decades separate her and the aging lawyer. Luckily, Gilroy treats their one dinner date as a night out based more on friendship and mutual political interests. (I must admit I held my breath, worried that Gilroy was going to go down that Tinsel Town fantasy of pairing old men with women a third their age. Thankfully, he didn’t.)  

Ultimately, Maya is a sidelight, and a platonic one at that. The real story here is Israel’s legal career and after wandering aimlessly for a chunk of the story, the aging activist ends up back at Pierce’s glass-towered firm. He sucks up his pride and takes a bad job, stuck in a dinky office, and charged with wrapping up the residual cases from his old firm that Pierce won't sully his $3,000 fitted suits with.

Then, during an attempt to do right by a young gangbanger incarcerated on trumped up charges, Israel overplays his hand with a cynical district attorney and the previously agreed upon deal crumbles right before his eyes. That dumb maneuver ends up getting his young client killed in prison. Now, Israel’s conscience reels. To right the wrong, he chooses an utterly unethical course using privileged information to nab the true culprit, even reaping a $100,000 reward for ratting out the bad guy. 

From there, the rest of the movie becomes all about that ethical dilemma and Israel's comeuppance for dealing with the wages of sin. Sure, he enjoys having money to spend on suits and indulge in bacon maple donuts at the Santa Monica Pier, but his mind is plagued by his greed. It also doesn't help that the thug he turned in knows what he did and promises to exact revenge upon him. 

This character study, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, wants to be another MICHAEL CLAYTON and comes close until that ratting reward twist in the third act. Interestingly, that legal thriller  starring George Clooney in 2007 was written and directed by Dan’s brother Tony Gilroy and they both have a knack for telling stories about the ruthless politics of power through the POV of a hungry title character. Tony’s film was one of the best that year, and Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER, about a crime journalist who ruthlessly steps over all comers in his attempt to gain fame and fortune, was a standout in 2014 while treading similar terrain. Dan Gilroy is on the same type of ground here again, yet Israel’s story isn’t as complex or nuanced as in those other films. Because of that, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. misses out on greatness.

Israel’s unethical choice in the third act seems woefully out of character. After all, wouldn’t a smart lawyer like Israel, one who can quote legal precedent and statutes as quickly as Rain Man could count toothpicks, find a better answer to his problems than to merely cheat the system? Complicating matters even more is the fact that Washington conveys such intelligence that it makes his character's bad judgment seem all the more questionable. Washington can play naive, but not that dumb.

The film was better when it concentrated on Israel simply trying to fit in. Finding a job as a man of color, fighting blatant age discrimination all around him, struggling as an idealist in a world of cynics – that's more than enough story. The third act here becomes labored, "plotty", even corny in a “movie-movie” sort of way. And then it all careens to the inevitable conclusion that anyone can see coming a mile away. Dan Gilroy fails to create any sublime moments like the one in brother Tony's film when Tilda Swinton’s corporate shyster drops to her knees after Michael Clayton (George Clooney) has bested her in their game of cat and mouse. The only thing that drops to the floor here are our hopes that Gilroy's film would finish just as strong as his brother's.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a better film than its ending, but its miscalculation turns it from an African-American MICHAEL CLAYTON into an African-American LINCOLN LAWYER, even with such an intelligent and formidable talent like Washington in the role. He deserves better. We do too. And frankly, so did the wonderful character that Gilroy created named Roman J. Israel.

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