“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

11 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

…Holy mackerel! For one brief shining moment (probably passed already by the time you read this), Reel Roy Reviews is #1 (!) in sales on Amazon’s list of best-selling movie guides and reviews. Don’t know how long this will last, so check out the photographic proof here!

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of The Butler: “In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’s The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“We turn a blind eye” – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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“In America, we turn a blind eye to how badly we treat our own, while pointing the finger at other countries’ abuse of their people.”

I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.

The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The movie is good … quite good actually.  While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.

(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)

So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.

The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).

Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.

The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.

I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.

Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.

I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.

In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.