The other night, I took myself to see Coco. I bought a ticket, sat down with my popcorn, but felt this odd stir of claustrophobia in the back of the crowded theater, also suddenly realizing I was going to have to sit through a 20-minute Frozen short no one has reviewed favorably.
I walked out and turned the corner right into the theater showing Roman J. Israel, Esq. There were three other single people in the theater (perfect!) and I had zero clue what the movie was about — I just new from the title that Denzel Washington was playing a lawyer. I guess. And that Colin Farrell was in it and I’ll see anything with Colin Farrell in it.
So here’s the formal summary:
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When he is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a turbulent series of events ensue that will put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.
But it was more than that for me. Washington’s performance was transformative. There was no “Denzel” on the screen, there was only Roman. It was a mind-blowing portrayal of a deeply layered, intricate character. And in Roman I found an unexpected kindred spirit.
When this “turbulent series of events” commence, without spoiling anything, let’s just say Roman comes into some money. So there he is, having just endured a rather draining series of unfortunate events in his life, down-trodden and feeling so low you can just about taste it. And with his new found wealth, he goes shopping, he finds a new place to live, he enjoys some treats that he’d previously had to deprive himself of — who hasn’t had this fantasy? Who hasn’t answered the “what would I do with a million dollars” question?
And really — just totally to my utter surprise — I could feel my heart swell and tears in my eyes. I felt an incredible amount of empathy for this man. Obviously not because he was a civil rights attorney or even because he was an outcast in his small society. Not because he was poor and now rich. I felt a closeness to him because I know how debilitating and emotionally exhausting it is to face struggle after struggle — to get up time and time again and have the world smack you back down. And as a result, to fantasize about living your best life. To feel that adrenaline when just a little good fortune comes your way.
What did it boil down to? Happiness is the best drug. Contentment. A smile. A hug from someone who cares. Security. These are the things we crave at a very base level. Portrayed so well on screen by an actor who lost himself on the character, it was profoundly effective. In a year where so many films have hit me hard (Call me by Your Name, Lady Bird), that is really saying something.