Have you ever seen a great performance in search of a good movie?
Dan Gilroy’s last film, Nightcrawler, snuck up on me at the Toronto International Film Festival. I knew nothing walking in, and I was flattened not only by the weird, ugly, delightfully unpleasant performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, but also by Gilroy’s jet-black and scathing screenplay. It is a terrific film where a great central character drives everything, but there’s a story that makes perfect use of that character.
That is not the case with Gilroy’s new film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which is being sold as a sort of good-natured comedy about a difficult truth-telling attorney. Those ads are strangely off-base, and I wonder if that’s the film Gilroy thought he was making. Maybe it’s just the movie the studio wishes it was actually selling. Whatever the case, the actual film is a largely dour and aimless affair, and while Denzel Washington gives a meticulously mannered performance, it’s not enough to justify the overall effort.
Washington stars as the title character, and he tells us his full name about 75 times in the film, honorific and all. Roman is a defense attorney who works with a far more high-profile partner. He’s the guy who handles all the paperwork, all the briefs, all the research, and his partner is the one who goes to court to dazzle juries and finesse judges. As the film opens, Roman’s partner has just had a massive heart attack, and Roman’s entire world is thrown into turmoil. It turns out their firm has been running at a loss for years, and while Roman is definitely a brilliant legal mind, he’s not much of a businessman. He isn’t prepared to take over the firm, and the family isn’t really interested in throwing away any more money. They bring in George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a high-powered shark of a lawyer who studied under Roman’s partner. His job is to close the office down for them, and when he meets Roman, his first impression’s not a great one.
I sat in a screening room the other day, waiting for another film to start, and listened to a few other critics talking. One of them was describing this movie and talked about how Denzel’s playing “a savant or an autistic or, you know, one of those types.” I’m not sure where he got that from the actual text of the film, but Roman is definitely a type, and it’s a type that largely exists only in movies or television. The most famous example of this type would be Sherlock Holmes, but in recent years, the most prominent example might be Hugh Laurie’s doctor on House. They’re the assholes with no filter who also happen to be brilliant at one thing. They’re the ones who can see the big picture in a way no one else does, and that gives them permission to be vaguely terrible to everyone else. I’d imagine for an actor, a part like that is a dream. You get to play big scenes, you’re always the smartest character in the room, and there’s a thrill that comes from being totally unfiltered.
The biggest problem with Gilroy’s film is that he doesn’t really know what to do with the character, which is the same problem the other characters in the film have. George’s firm is all about volume and billable hours, which goes directly against the fairly strict ethical code that Roman has created for himself. He believes his ultimate purpose is to file a case that he’s been working on for 30 years, a case that will transform the entire judicial and penal system. The movie never gives us even the slightest indication of whether he’s right or not, so we can’t be sure. Is this some Quixotic windmill? Or is Roman a true genius, lost in the wilderness, but right?
Roman tries to go to work for George, and when he’s given an opportunity to make some quick money by doing something that goes completely against his moral compass, he has a moment of weakness. That moment then defines the rest of the movie, and if they did something interesting with that contradiction, that hypocrisy that suddenly turns Roman into someone he doesn’t recognize, that might be worthwhile. But the film just keeps lurching forward, starting and stopping without ever really settling into any kind of storytelling rhythm. Gilroy’s a talented guy, and there are plenty of individual scenes that work, but this film feels more like a pilot that got refigured into something else instead of an actual movie.
Denzel Washington is still every inch a movie star, and he attacks the role with a real hunger. He’s done a nice job of transforming himself into this hunched, inward, invisible man who has spent so long at his desk that he’s started to spread out around the midsection. It’s a detailed performance, and he does everything the film asks of him and more. But without anything to do or really react to, Roman feels like he’s adrift. He meets a social worker/activist named Maya (Carmen Ejogo), and they have a strange sort of flirtation, but the film never figures out anything for Maya to do besides admire Roman. The same is true of Colin Farrell’s character, George. Is he a scumbag amoral monster? Is he a shark with a conscience? Does he love Roman, or does he hate him? Moment to moment, the film can’t figure it out. If George is going to have any kind of moral awakening, we have to really see that happen. It can’t just be a vague proximity to Roman that does it, especially after Roman screws things and costs George money.
There was a point in this film where it felt like it was about to shift gears and become a thriller, but Gilroy is almost afraid to give the movie any narrative focus. By the time the big finish happens, it’s been telegraphed completely, and there’s no bite to it. Things happen because it is time for them happen, not because there’s any sort of organic sense of life to things. What little plot there is feels manufactured in order to push things forward, not arising out of character or theme except by brute force. It’s a handsomely-made film, and how could it not be? Robert Elswit is the director of photography, and you’ve got a score by James Newton Howard. Everything is tasteful, with detailed, character-focused production design by Kevin Kavanaugh, with Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes adding even further dimension to Roman.
But without a pulse, without something to actually say, the film feels a lot like Roman himself — obviously capable, but lost. Dan Gilroy is good at what he does, and he will make plenty of great films… this just isn’t one of them.
Running time: 117 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic