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Sunday, February 25, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Pretty much from the moment I started following the Oscars, I've been ragging on Meryl Streep. Totally apart from how you feel about her as a performer – she's certainly had good and bad roles – she gets nominated for Academy Awards way too fucking much. I'm not alone in this criticism of Streep. Yet another prominent performer is quickly becoming Streep's male equivalent. The Academy really likes Denzel Washington. He's won two Oscars and has been nominated six other times. Within the last five years alone, he's been nominated three times. Denzel is good but is he really that good? His latest nod is for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a movie that received fairly mediocre reviews. Is this a truly exceptional Washington performance or did he fill a slot perhaps better occupied by another actor?

For many years, Roman J. Israel has worked as one of two partners in a law firm. The odd, possibly on-the-spectrum Israel mostly stays in the office, perhaps not having the right temperament for one-and-one interaction. When his partner has a heart attack, Roman is suddenly thrust into this position. A life-long activist, Roman has struggled for years to make the world a better place. Following a string of bad luck, including being let go from his law firm, Roman decides to do something selfish, unethical, and illegal. At first, it pays off for him. However, his conscious and other circumstances soon chip away at him.

On paper, the idea of a lauded performer like Denzel playing an ambiguously autistic character sounds like a recipe for disaster. Is just going to be another actor miming a disability in an attempt to win awards, right? Well, whether or not Israel is genuinely neuro-divergant, as opposed to just eccentric, is never quite confirmed. Moreover, Washington makes the guy genuinely likable. He has his quirks. He eats peanut butter sandwiches every day. He never goes anywhere without his iPod, listening to classic soul records. One of his favorite possessions is a bulldog statue. He has memorized the entire legal code. Denzel wears a frizzy wig and slumps his shoulders. Washington extends past these surface quirks and finds Israel's soul, as someone struggling to do right in a frequently troubled world. Considering the crappy things that happen to him, you can't help but feel bad for the guy.

Spending the first half establishing Roman's ironclad ethics, there's a perverse thrill to watching him go the other way. Usually, a fall from grace like this is a tragic circumstance. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” it's a deliberate choice of the character. And it works out for him, at least for a while! There's a delightfully unexpected montage of Roman eating donuts, hanging out on a beach, buying a fancy apartment, and generally enjoying his newfound wealth. Naturally, this elation is short-lived. Soon, the film turns into a very internal type of thriller. Though there's an external threat, most of the tension comes from seeing how Roman will justify his own decisions. This peaks with a fantastic sequence, set rather too fittingly to a slowed down version of the Chambers Brothers' “Time Has Come Today.”

Granted, there's a lot of shit about “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” that doesn't add up. The legal thriller element of the story fall fairly flat. The legalese and outcomes of trial seem less important that Roman's personal struggle. A sequence where the title character is mugged feels very out-of-place. A subplot, concerning Israel building a massive folder for a landmark case, really clatters along with little point. There's a deeply unnecessary romantic subplot, that adds little to the plot and seems inserted more for its own sake than anything else. A scene devoted to Israel talking to a room full of young, hip activist comes off as hopelessly tone-deaf. These are fair criticism to level at the film.

The film is the latest from director Dan Gilroy, who previously made the excellent “Nightcrawler.” Most reviewers and fans have seen “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” as a step down in quality from Gilroy's previous feature. I doubt this one will be reconsidered much going forward, since it does have a genuinely messy screenplay. Yet I found the movie and its main character surprisingly endearing. Did Denzel really earn that nomination? I mean, truthfully, just for variety's sake, I probably would've preferred someone else to get the nod. Having said that, I really liked Washington in this so who knows? I'm wrong often. [7/10]

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