Roman J. Israel, Esq.

(USA 2017)

“Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve done.”

“[Esquire] is a title of dignity. Slightly above gentleman, below knight.”

— Roman J. Israel

I didn’t love Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (, but I like his style — it’s a noirish kind of ’70s grit. He uses the same thing to greater effect in Roman J. Israel, Esq., which is a noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, it’s still just an okay movie.

Another drama set in Los Angeles, Denzel Washington is the titular character, an idealistic old school Luddite attorney who focuses on criminal procedure and civil rights. He’s forced to give up his dingy bankrupt two-man practice when his law partner falls unconscious. He takes a position working for slick George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner. George, who runs a swanky firm big enough to have departments and refers to his clients’ “team,” is all about the billing.

Roman, who prides himself on zealously representing his clients, runs into an ethical dilemma when he’s assigned a criminal matter — and he makes it worse.

I appreciate what Gilroy is getting at here; I understand it firsthand. Personal convictions all too often clash with professional obligations. It’s tough not to lose sight of your beliefs in the face of deadlines, billable hours, and client service. Whatever point he’s making, though, is muddled in an aimless plot that lacks intensity and runs out steam early on. The ending is hard to follow; I had to rewind a couple times to see the caption on the brief to catch what happens. Big deal.

It’s never a good sign when I’m paying more attention to the locations than the plot. Washington does a fine job — his performance is stronger than the material he has to work with. Farrell does as good a job, especially with even less to work with. I’m curious to see what Gilroy does next, but I hope it’s punchier and less clouded than Roman J. Israel, Esq.

With Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Vince Cefalu, Tarina Pouncy, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Jocelyn Ayanna, Eli Bildner, Robert Prescott, Elisa Perry, Shelley Hennig, Annie Sertich, Ajgie Kirkland, Franco Vega, Lauren Ellen Thompson, Anthony Traina, King Orba, Danny Barnes, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee

Production: Bron Studios, Cross Creek Pictures, Culture China / Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund, Escape Artists, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, LStar Capital, MACRO, Topic Studios, Creative Wealth Media Finance

Distribution: Columbia Pictures (USA), Cinépolis Distribución (Mexico), Sony Pictures Releasing (Argentina), United International Pictures (UIP) (International)

122 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C+

The Lobster

(Ireland/UK/Greece 2015)

“Now the fact that you will turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down. Just think, as an animal you’ll have a second chance to find a companion. But, even then, you must be careful; you need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.”

—Hotel Manager

Every now and then, a film so wonderfully unique comes along that you just don’t know what exactly to make of it until you take some time to digest it (I took all summer to write and post this entry). The Lobster is such a film. It’s not going to appeal to everyone—it’s a dark, subtle, absurd, uncomfortable, irreverent, and totally open-ended satire of the desire to be “in a relationship.” None of this is the stuff of a summer movie, but I loved it precisely because of these qualities. So far, The Lobster is easily my favorite film I’ve seen this year—released in Europe last fall, it crossed the Atlantic just this past spring.

In the not-so-distant future in a not-so-distant society, being single is against the law. Regardless of the reason for their singularity (death of a spouse, divorce, being dumped), unattached adults must check into a certain hotel designated for singles and find a suitable match, verified and approved by the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), within 45 days. Everything is regimented with meal times, active learning exercises, forced social events, and a strict prohibition on masturbation (though one form of sex with the housekeeping staff is required). “Guests” can buy additional time by shooting “loners”—rogue outlaw singles who escaped to the woods—on daily hunting excursions that resemble Hunger Games. Those who fail to find someone before their time runs out are transformed into the animal of their choice, selected during their initial processing, and banished to the woods.

The Lobster’s protagonist, mild-mannered David (Colin Farrell), finds himself at the hotel, his brother, Bob—now a dog—in tow, after the end of his marriage. He chooses a lobster as his animal because “lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.” He also likes the sea.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The Lobster is essentially divided into two acts: the first in the hotel and the second in the woods. David connects with fellow guests the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw). David notices that the guests there tend seek others like themselves—except for Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), an emotionless femmebot who seeks out no one but has a seemingly infinite amount of time left thanks to her ruthless archery skills. David decides to go for her, which leads him to the woods. There, he meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), who is near-sighted like he is. They connect, but the militaristic Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) forbids all romance—punishable by mutilation. “We dance alone,” she tells David as she hands him an iPod. “That’s why we only play electronic music.”

Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, the screenplay feels like a Chuck Palahniuk novel. The story is so bizarre and far fetched that it seems silly on paper, but proves incredibly powerful once in motion—in the same way that Being John Malkovich, another film I love that requires the same suspension of disbelief, didn’t sound like much to me before I saw it. Lanthimos has a taste for sadness and the macabre, and he liberally infuses The Lobster with both. He doesn’t take a dim view of relationships, but he notices the dim things people do to have one. The cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis is fabulously drab, with a cool, monotonous, faded color palette that creates a sense of distance and evokes a sense of resignation. Classical music plays throughout to add a kind of Clockwork Orange weirdness to the whole thing.

Despite the mood here, the story turns out to be oddly beautiful. Farrell gives one of his best performances—he drops all his rakish charm to become a colorless, big-bellied middle-aged schlub I found myself rooting for with each predicament he gets into. The inability of David and the Short Sighted Girl to express their feelings for each other is damn near heartbreaking. The entire cast is outstanding, and not a single character is superfluous. The second act is noticeably slower than the first, and perhaps could have been shorter than it is. Regardless, the momentum continues to build to a brilliantly ironic ending that comes about through David’s nearsightedness.

The Lobster doesn’t resolve in the end, which is my favorite thing about it. The viewer is left to decide what happens—and I’ve already discussed different opinions others have about whether David did, or didn’t. It’s the kind of film that lingers on in your memory and forces you think about it even though you’ll never know for sure.

Side note: the film’s website has a quiz that determines your suitable animal. Mine were an elephant, a horse (which finds pleasure in carrots, music, and oral sex), and a water bear. I chose a horse, of course.

119 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) A-