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Roman Israel, Esq—the movie formerly known as Inner City

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    Keth
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    I noted this morning that today was the last day Roman Israel, Esq. was playing in my neighborhood theater – Star Wars pretty much took over the theater at 7 tonight.

    Glad I went – I really enjoyed this movie, even with all its flaws. But, most important, Denzel Washington is excellent as the lead character. I applaud his performance here and his Globe and SAG nods are well deserved and he is my current number one for Best Actor. I’m seeing Call Me by Your Name tomorrow and hope to see The Darkest Hour and/or The Disaster Artist (although not excited about either) sometime this weekend.

    Fine performance, Denzel!

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    distain
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    My thoughts on the movie:

    Roman J Israel, Esq at times feels more like a slightly extended television pilot than a fully formed movie. That’s not neccesarily a bad thing (this is the era of peak TV after all), but you can see why some people came away from this feeling a bit dissatisfied with the film as a whole. I thought there was a whole world and characters that could be much better served and explored in a weekly series or 12 part Netflix show. I’d like to see more of George (Colin Farrell’s character) and Maya (Carmen Ejogo) as well as Roman. I thought it was probing and intelligent, even with some very obvious flaws. And it makes me excited for whatever Dan Gilroy does next as a filmmaker, because in many ways his film is as uncomprimising as it’s titular lead character. You can see the through-line from Nightcrawler to Roman J Israel, Esq, and that’s the mark of a real auteur. It’s almost entirely a character study, and the plot, such as it is, is thinly drawn to focus on that character.

    But what a goddamned character! Roman J.Isreal, Esq is hands down one of Denzel Washington’s greatest creations. He’s got so many great performances, but this is unique among all of them. For the first time in his career, Washington plays a nerd. Every quality that we normally associate with Denzel is gone or entirely tamped down. The confidence, the charisma. Gone. His usual confident walk, replaced by a shuffling galumph. Roman struggles to look people in the eye. He’s surprised when a woman shows any possible romantic interest in him. He means so well, but he cannot help offending people whenever he opens his mouth.

    Roman is obviously on the Autistic spectrum, but this may be the first time in the movie I can recall that it doesn’t play like an actors gimmick. The tics are there, but Washington (and Gilroy’s script) invest Roman with so much personality, that you aren’t left feeling like you are watching what’s essentially a collection of autistic tics (like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbit in Rain Man, which is a comparable performance. And Washington’s work is far better realised). It’s a fairly subtle performance, and just about any other actor would have leaned so much into the Autism tics that Roman would have been a caricature from a dozen other movies. But Washington’s doesn’t make easy or obvious choices, and leaves us with a character not quite seen before onscreen.

    It’s a vulnerable and painfully awkward performance. Watching Roman cry (and try to hide it) as he tries to read off his resume in a failing attempt to get a new job is sad.

    It’s very, very easy to see how Washington got the SAG nomination. This is a pure actors performance in skill and execution, and it’s actually more surprising not to see Washington get more critics group citations, as it’s such an indelible performance in a supposedly “weak year” for the lead actor category. But yeah, it’ll be absolutely no surprise and entirely justified, if he gets Oscar nominated once again. With a stronger reception for the film itself and more “buzz” that comes with that, it’s a performance I could see winning the Oscar. That won’t happen, but with Fences and Roman J. Israel back to back, Washington is taking on and nailing the sort of risky, high-wire character pieces that suggest he’s not interested in resting on his accolades.

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    distain
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    The always interesting character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (best known as Ned from Groundhog Day) put out a tweet recently about Washington’s work in Roman J Israel, Esq that encapsulates my own thoughts:

    Stephen Tobolowsky‏Verified account @Tobolowsky Dec 27
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    We all have favorites. Denzel Washington has been mine for years. He makes bad movies watchable and good movies classics. But Roman J. Israel, Esq. @RomanJIsraelEsq is a performance that is beyond anything I have seen. Courageous. Afraid. Lost. Found.

    https://twitter.com/Tobolowsky/status/946048850799706113

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    JackO
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    Agreed Washington is great. It’s too bad the movie behind him is so completely forgettable. I saw this on like the 20th and couldn’t even muster the energy to write up anything about it.

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