Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Chifilmfest Review: "Roman J. Israel Esq." Denzel Washington can't quite save a confusing script

Chicago International Film Festival Review

Roman J. Israel Esq. Review

One of the actors that really got me into loving movies was Denzel Washington. He truly is one of my favorite actors of all time, if not THE favorite. I have loved him in everything he’s made, even if the movie in question was trash. Let’s be honest, nobody in Hollywood has a perfect resume, that’s just part of working in the making of art. But every time Denzel works to bring a character to life, there is a raw determination that you can see and even feel in all his movies. I believe in the people he creates, and I am willing to take an entire journey with them. Now, can Denzel save an entire movie just by his performance alone? Sorry, I can’t truly admit that. One performance is never enough for me to love or even like a movie.

Which makes something like “Roman J. Israel Esq.” a frustrating experience.

Dan Gilroy, who was in Chicago to introduce his film, wrote and directed the brilliant “Nightcrawler” in 2014 with Jake Gyllenhaal. He co-wrote such scripts as “Real Steel” and “Kong: Skull Island.” Just from those few credits alone, it’s clear that Gilroy has lots of muscle as an artist. Not everybody can do both the blockbusters and the smaller fair, the mini’s and the majors. But Gilroy seems to have very diverse tastes and a clever eye, so I admit, I was totally excited to see Gilroy’s second film as director and writer. Being such a huge fan of “Nightcrawler” got me extremely giddy.

Now, “Roman J. Israel Esq.” isn’t a horrible film, far from the worst of the year or even a bad movie in general. I feel’s just drastically miscalculated. It’s features a confusing, uneven script. Roman J. Israel, who purposefully puts the term esquire at the end of his name, wants so badly to be an important lawyer, and he wants to be noticed for his work. He’s been fighting the good fight while other’s have been taking all the credit. When his partner, the firms front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role. The firm is small, and bleeding funds, so all its cases and clients are moved to a bigger firm run by George Pierce (Colin Ferrell). After much debate, Israel decides to join Pierce’s firm. He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading firm has done that run afoul Israel’s his values and helping the poor and oppressed. He eventually finds himself in an existential crisis.

The problem is, Gilroy’s script seems to go every which way. At some points, it seems like the movie may be about Israel creating a law that will drastically change how firms handle cases. The next moment, it feels like a movie about a lawyer struggling with the process of being a lawyer and the morality of being a lawyer. The next moment, it seems like a comedy about how an introverted man becomes a lawyer. The next moment, it seems like it’s a movie about how a man rises in a firm and how that makes him forget who he really is. The script is a near-perfect example of a writer having several good ideas for a movie, but can’t focus on just one of those ideas. So, they throw all of them into the script. The result ends up feeling like somebody put a bunch of ingredients that don’t go together into a blender, hoping the concoction created will be a delicious treat.

None of this could stop Denzel Washington from delivering a phenomenal performance. Which he does. I know it’s not often that an actor goes to the same major acting category for the Oscars two years in a row, but Washington could easily be on the ballot this January. It’s that high of quality, it’s that great, it’s that profound. Israel seems almost autistic, or maybe having Asperger’s. He says random things, says what’s on his mind, it doesn’t seem to realize that what he says may offend someone. He wears his hair and his clothes like 1970’s attire, at first, I didn’t think the movie took place in the present day based on Washington’s appearance, but it doesn’t. There is an old school vibe to Israel’s style. It’s a complete original character, very memorable all by itself. Denzel receives plenty of support by Ferrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nazneen Contractor, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee and Shelley Hennig, all of whom provide strong talent to their roles. Denzel scores some big laughs with his acting work, and it’s just another addition into his showcase as a performer. But it’s not enough to make this film great. It’s too confusing, it’s too convoluted, and it’s not a movie that needed to be over two hours.

I am not trying to take anything away from Dan Gilroy as a filmmaker, it’s clear he’s got the goods when it comes to filmmaking. He’s got a good eye for setting up scenes, and writing dialogue. That was true even in his first film. He’s clearly still growing as a writer slash director, and I am sure his masterpiece is right around the corner, it’s just not this. It’s full of great performances, and great ideas. But it’s far from a masterpiece.

"Roman J. Israel Esq." will be released wide in the United States on November 10th.


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