Roman J. Israel, Esq. — 10 Movies in 10 Days: TIFF 2017 Review

The Mob’s Reel has been gracious enough to host Mobster, Curtis Morgan's TIFF 2017 review. As an actor and film buff, Curtis braved this years red carpet to bring you spoiler-free reviews on the 10 films he saw at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.


Denzel Washington is everything.  But how did he get there?  I mean, have you ever thought about it?  Yes, he is the greatest actor in the world, but there are other superb actors of his caliber that are not nearly as loved or revered as him.  He, himself, is, in my opinion sometimes surprised and annoyed (as some of his interview clips suggest) with all the attention he gets whenever he indulges in the craft that he loves.  Is it because he is immensely talented?  Arguably.  Another school of thought is that Denzel Washington is a great choice-maker.

An actor like Denzel most likely has a million scripts pass before him.  It is his uncanny ability to select above average ones that keeps his box office value at a high level.  He knows he has fans, and he rarely chooses projects that will let them down.  Moreover, he chooses characters that for the most part have palpable substance, which makes it ironic that he lost his first Oscar nomination when he played a soldier with a lot of heart in the first black regiment in the Civil War, but he won his first Oscar playing a crooked police officer.  Denzel chooses great projects, and then makes excellent choices as an actor.  This formula works for him (for the most part) every time he goes to work at the box office.

That’s what makes Roman J Israel, Esq. such a surprise.  At first glance, I can see why Denzel wanted to play Roman.  Denzel has never tackled a role that involved him having an actual affliction of the mental variety.  Roman has Asperger Syndrome which is a type of Autism.  He has never played a character so socially out-of-step with the rest of the world.  Roman is a true thespian’s dream, a real challenge, as this type of autism is one that many adults function in society with on a daily basis, so he is straddling this line between someone who makes decisions and feels things like the rest of us who don’t have any forms of autism, but then at other times making decisions and moves and connections that the rest of us wouldn’t.  At the beginning of the movie, you learn that that is what makes him a brilliant lawyer, but what also makes him unable to practice law publicly.  He is the brains behind a successful defence attorney who is the face of the firm.  At the start of the movie, you find out that “the face” has passed away, and because Roman doesn’t have the proper social facilities to handle himself properly in a courtroom, the firm will be closing and he will be out of a job.  Enter big bad, young, brilliant, money-hungry defence attorney, Colin Farrell.  He hires Roman to become one of the brains of his large firm because he becomes acutely aware of his unparalleled brilliance and grasp of the law.  Roman reluctantly takes the job and then a serious of unfortunate events transpire.

The character portrayal in this film, is brilliant, however, not Denzel’s best work (see Malcolm X).  I found him more distracted in this piece, jumping in and out of Roman.  That could be in the editing, but more than likely, it is in the writing and direction.  There is a fatal decision that is made by Roman half way through that is such a leap from his seemingly innocent character that he plays with such naivety.  It suggests a deeper level of criminal conniving and calculation than the earlier portrayal of Roman would deem possible.  This one choice that doesn’t really go in line with any of the other choices he made previously in terms of intent, ends up being the one that starts to unravel the man, himself.

Prior to this moment, the director and Denzel worked hard to depict the dimensions in which Roman operates; the strict rules that he governs himself by — the rigidity in which he has built his awkward existence and the limits he puts on how he carries himself (including his outdated, oversized suit that he wears daily) and how he lives.  Then the director expects us to accept this incredibly dumb, illegal, and for reasons never made apparent to the audience, seemingly desperate decision that he made that changes the course of the entire film.

This is in stark contrast to the character development in director, Dan Gilroy’s first feature, Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaall (Roman is his second director credit).  In that film, from the very beginning he introduces you to a character who is decidedly despicable, owns it, and his journey takes him deeper down a rabbit hole that he has created.  Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom does make some leaps, but they are within his character, within his original motivations, and tied to his deepest desires, twisted as they may be.  Louis Bloom was consistent in character and brilliantly written and portrayed by Gilroy and Gyllenhaal.

This is what Roman J Israel, Esq. is lacking, and it’s too bad, because I love me some Denzel.  Truthfully, he should maybe get an Oscar nod for his difficult portrayal of a man of that age with Asperger Syndrome.  Hell, I’d give Denzel an Oscar for his portrayal of a traffic light.  But the movie itself is lacking, and may even lose you half way through.  It is another film where the circumstances that lead to the climax are the result of one flawed moment in character (or in this case, out of character).  Those moments are usually easier to swallow if it falls in line with what you have been shown about that character, even in the smallest way, in previous scenes.  That is not the case, here.  But maybe it’s just me.

Also, it seemed strange to me, how, sporadically in the movie, Denzel and other characters would speak to each other in long-winded, large-obscure-worded pseudo-soliloquies.   This was tolerable, and even welcomed in Denzel’s last movie, Fences, as it was adapted closely to the play of the same name and as long-winded as some of the speeches were, they properly conveyed the feelings of those uttering them.  But in a film like this, we are simply expected to believe that these humans talk to each other in a similar way just because they are lawyers, and the person initiating the speak is different (Asperger’s).  That itself was a leap and quite honestly, distracting to the viewer (me), especially in the final climactic scene.  It almost makes you feel like you have to watch it again to fully understand the dialogue, but there is not enough actually going on in the movie to make it worth a second watch.

Although Denzel made great choices and did amazing work as an actor here, I wish I saw his Roman J Israel, Esq in a better written and directed film.

Roman J Israel, Esq. gets 3.5/5 stars (mostly for Denzel’s daring portrayal which everyone should see).

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