‘Ro­man’wastes Wash­ing­ton I

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

T’s get­ting close to Os­car sea­son and that means it’s time for an early pre­dic­tion. Ready? Here goes: The Academy Award for Worst Ti­tle of a Mo­tion Pic­ture will surely go to Ro­man J. Is­rael, Esq.

This com­plex, un­tidy but am­bi­tious film star­ring a bril­liant Den­zel Wash­ing­ton de­serves bet­ter. At one point it was called In­ner City, which might ac­tu­ally be worse. But just la­bel­ing it af­ter its quirky and fic­tional lead char­ac­ter is a cop out, like call­ing a film Andy Kauf­man in­stead of Man on the Moon or Vin­cent Van Gogh in­stead of Lust For Life.

The dif­fi­culty may be be­cause this is an un­usual char­ac­ter jour­ney that chews on huge is­sues not fre­quently tack­led on film. Di­rected and writ­ten by Dan Gil­roy, Ro­man J. Is­rael, Esq. traces the fall from grace of a man not in the pre­dictable way when he hits rock bot­tom but how a bro­ken per­son ac­tu­ally rises in wealth and es­teem.

But Gil­roy, who has writ­ten dark indies like Nightcrawler and big bud­gets like Kong: Skull Is­land, seems to strug­gle with what film to make. It of­ten feels like a small, in­tel­lec­tual film is rat­tling around in­side the bones of a more pre­dictable Hol­ly­wood le­gal thriller, mir­ror­ing the film’s con­flicted lead.

Wash­ing­ton plays Is­rael, an at­tor­ney in mod­ern-day Los An­ge­les who for decades has been the quiet, back­room brains of a two-per­son crim­i­nal de­fense firm un­til he’s called upon to step for­ward. He’s some­what ill-equipped to do so — his ratty suits are ill-fit­ting, his glasses are un­fash­ion­able and he lis­tens to an iPod with those old or­ange-foam head­phones.

Yet Is­rael is an old-school civil rights war­rior who is a lonely ge­nius — some­one calls him a “sa­vant” and an­other says he’s a “freak” (both sound about right.) He prefers to pore over le­gal briefs in his hum­ble apart­ment while eat­ing peanut but­ter sand­wiches than drive around in a flashy car. (He walks ev­ery­where, which in Los An­ge­les sig­ni­fies bor­der­line in­san­ity).

Thrust into the real world, Is­rael strug­gles. He may have the en­tire Cal­i­for­nia le­gal code mem­o­rized, but he’s blunt and unso­cial and doesn’t know how to find his email. “Pub­lic speak­ing is usu­ally some­thing I’m en­cour­aged to avoid,” he con­fesses.

When his co­coon is fi­nally bro­ken, Is­rael must fend for him­self and try to keep his prin­ci­ples, which be­comes harder when he falls into the or­bit of a slick de­fense at­tor­ney (Colin Far­rell, won­der­fully un­der­stated), who of­fers a new, snazzy lifestyle. Car­men Ejogo plays a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer — the an­gel to Far­rell’s devil. Which will Is­rael choose? He ad­mits he’s “tired of do­ing the im­pos­si­ble for the un­grate­ful.” Can ide­al­ism be bought?

Wash­ing­ton has done ev­ery­thing he can to in­habit this odd man. He sham­bles along with a heavy gait, lug­ging a heavy case and con­stantly pushes his glasses up with a fin­ger. As he changes, Wash­ing­ton does, too — flash­ing a forced smile, los­ing his tics. Set against a Los An­ge­les that seems in con­stant flux thanks to never-end­ing con­struc­tion, the film mir­rors the re­mak­ing of its lead char­ac­ter.

Gil­roy has pep­pered the script with some great lines — “Pu­rity can’t sur­vive in this world” and “My lack of suc­cess is self-im­posed” — that Wash­ing­ton al­most whis­pers. The film is also won­der­fully scored, with 1960s and ‘70s soul songs as rich as the di­a­logue — Al Green, Marvin Gaye, The Spin­ners and Ge­orge Clin­ton.

But there are frus­tra­tions, too. Is­rael is stub­bornly lost in the ‘70s, but has an iPod and a flip phone, a trans­par­ent at­tempt by the film­mak­ers to have their cake and eat it, too. And if he’s such a sa­vant, why can’t he fig­ure out bet­ter choices? (You’ll be able to see how this film ends 10 min­utes be­fore it hap­pens.) His love in­ter­est seems tacked on and the film also raises ques­tions it never re­ally an­swers — like, can the old civil rights strate­gies re­ally work in to­day’s frag­mented iden­tity pol­i­tics?

Wash­ing­ton gives us an­other as­tound­ing per­for­mance of a deeply idio­syn­cratic man, but the film around him of­ten isn’t as skill­ful, me­an­der­ing in places and grad­u­ally be­com­ing more like a lot of other films. Soon, an un­con­ven­tional char­ac­ter is star­ring in a con­ven­tional film.

And then there’s that ti­tle. Don’t get us started.

Sony Pic­tures via AP Pho­tos: Glen Wil­son/

Den­zel Wash­ing­ton in a scene from ‘‘Ro­man J. Is­rael, Esq.”

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