Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is a film that seems to exist, but you only ask yourself what would have happened to the same skill you will have recognized prior because in the case of Roman J. Israel, Esq., it all seems to have gone away. It all seems to have gone away because compared to the cleverness and the overall visceral nature of that past effort, it seems to have gone away in the favour of what I would only assume is Denzel Washington speaking in the veins of an imitator of Aaron Sorkin. Granted, it may be entertaining to see Denzel Washington just merely being Denzel Washington like we always have seen him as, but at its worst, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is just absolutely boring.
Denzel Washington stars as the titular lawyer, he is an idealistic, liberal, and socially awkward individual – almost akin to a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. This whole movie revolves around what he has dedicated his life to and how he finds that challenged now that he is taking on the role of a partner after he dies suddenly, only to discover that the firm that he has been working for may not at all have been what he suspected it to be. After that discovery, it seems to have so little else to say but we are left with the very fascinating presence of the titular character and that’s about everything that seems to carry this film from that point onward. This film just ends up having nowhere else to go from there, because it surrounds Denzel Washington within another world where he seems to have nowhere else to go or anything to even say about him.
Apparently, this film had bee re-edited after its TIFF premiere (which I did not catch) after it was met with rather negative buzz from then, and I don’t know if I can really imagine that it would make Roman J. Israel, Esq. any more interesting of a film as it is. But it’s clear that this film’s editing was in dire need of help, because it’s never easy to follow around the way that its structured because I suppose that’s how Dan Gilroy expects us to follow along with the ride? Is this supposed to be how Roman J. Israel is seeing events around him as they are unfolding right in front of him? Is this supposed to be a part of another puzzle that Roman J. Israel is trying to solve? It’s never made clear what Gilroy would have wanted to create from the very way he is telling the story of Roman J. Israel, because it’s so awkwardly edited to the point you end up feeling its length as it continuously throws you off then and there.
This movie has that very habit of speaking much like Aaron Sorkin, but somehow it ends up playing out as a more baffling experiment than the actual Sorkin film that came out around the time (Molly’s Game, which I found enjoyable if unremarkable). It never seems natural to anyone outside of Roman. It never feels natural, and it ends up stinting the performances of the whole cast. But even Aaron Sorkin knew how to make the dialogue at least sound so inviting to the human ear, and here it ends up coming off as just complicated technobabble moving so quickly. And it’s not the fast talk that gives the film a brisk pace, rather instead it’s the sort of fast talk that ends up alienating most viewers who think they would be watching a film about what they would want to see, an idealistic lawyer who only wants to do what he believes is the right thing.
Now what exactly is there to be said about Denzel Washington’s performance? It’s so hard for me to comment, being an autistic person who would so easily recognize the obsessive-compulsive habits and social awkwardness akin to that of anyone else on the spectrum, because if that was what Dan Gilroy intended for his viewers to read out of the character, it also plays out like a fast-talking stereotype. Yet somehow, Denzel Washington’s performance is enough to make the character fascinating in its own regard, because when you are looking at this performance as just Denzel Washington being Denzel Washington, you already know what you can bring yourself to expect from a man of his own calibre. But in the end, you know you’re just watching any other Denzel Washington movie.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film that merely exists, quite like a lot of Denzel Washington’s more recent filmography. It never seems to do much beyond the fact that it exists and all you really know you can expect out of it is that Denzel Washington being Denzel Washington is fun as it has always been. But when you consider the amount of talent behind getting a story like this to even be told, coming out from the same director and writer of Nightcrawler, you’re only left to wonder what it was that even happened as he was trying to structure this film. It isn’t especially helpful for the way autistic people are being perceived by the general public as a result of mainstream cinema either. I was really hoping to at least find some enjoyment beyond Denzel Washington, but at this point I’m only falling skeptical of what Dan Gilroy has in store for the future.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony.
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Screenplay by Dan Gilroy
Produced by Todd Black, Jennifer Fox, Denzel Washington
Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 122 minutes