A driven, idealistic defense attorney finds himself at the hands of a difficult dilemma that will have him questioning everything that he ever knew. In ‘Roman J. Israel Esq’, Civil Lawyer Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) has been fighting the good fight while others take the credit. When his partner, the firm’s front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role. He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading law firm has done that run afoul of his values of helping the poor and dispossessed, and he finds himself in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action. On the crossroads of one’s life, does he take the road less traveled, or the easiest path to victory? ‘Roman J. Israel Esq’ is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, and is rated PG-13 for adult language and some scenes of violence.
The trailer for ‘Roman J Israel Esq’ felt like a bunch of unassembled puzzle pieces thrown together out of context that didn’t gel into one cohesive unit. The first thing that I grab from a film’s trailer is the overall plot because it’s in that aspect where I decide just how badly I want to see said movie. After seeing the full length feature film, I can understand why I didn’t have the slightest clue what this film was about, nor where the direction it was competently headed. The film structured all around by Gilroy, feels like four different stories that are fighting for the allotment of the 112 minute runtime that hints at some of them being dissected in order of importance along the way. As far as fluidity amongst scripts is concerned, Gilroy takes an unpredictably tragic misstep after the success that was 2014’s ‘Nightcrawler’ by trying to establish too many profound observations on the seedy world of practicing law. Because of such, this film from bell-to-bell is a chore to get through, juggling enough violent tonal shifts and jarring sequencing that gave me a feeling of amnesia to the ideal that I may have just watched four different films take place, and possibly nodded off between them to where they now feel like one finished product.
Some of the advantages of this script revolve around the cryptic movements positioned by our protagonist that constantly feels one step ahead of us the audience. As a character, Israel feels conflicted by the crossroads that forces him to choose between continuing the fight for good, or surrounding himself with the material things that serve as the greatest reflection of success for one’s career. This to me was the single greatest movement in terms of direction for the script, but it’s just unfortunate that the film often feels like Israel’s story isn’t compelling enough to dedicate the majority of minutes to, despite he himself being in 100% of the scenes for the movie. This certainly isn’t one of those movies that will have you on the edge of your seat, but the tugging between good and evil inside of one man’s conflicted point of view felt satisfying enough because of the truly vapid wild card of a man that we are dealing with here. To that degree, Gilroy feels like the kind of screenwriter that offers an unapologetic stance for how he sees the world in all of its gluttony for getting to the top with each pawn having a price. Similar ground is treaded in ‘Nightcrawler’, albeit in slightly less disjointed ways, but ‘Roman J Israel Esq’ further establishes this theory, treading through shaky ground to find comfort in a moral conundrum that could’ve used more development on the surface.
Besides this favorable subplot, the rest of the film muddles itself to paralyzing by pulling at the arms of ambition one time too many. Besides Israel’s mental change, the rest of the film deals with a client of Israel’s behind bars who may have details that the authorities seek in order to put him away for life, a romantic subplot involving a character played by Carmen Ejogo that completely comes out of nowhere and feels so unnatural because of a great lack of chemistry, and finally the crumbling of his law practice after the untimely death of his best friend and partner. You can certainly understand the balance of power when you hear so many establishing points for the screenplay, but what you can’t tell by reading this is just how weighed down the script feels in details that dispose it of any kind of entertainment value that will keep you invested. By the halfway point of this film, I found myself fighting for the slightest tinge of excitement that would prolong my attention, but it simply wasn’t there. This isn’t because of unnatural pacing mind you, but rather the long-winded diatribes of exposition that overly states instead of shows what is transpiring, and I for one could’ve used more of a hands on approach to prove that this film isn’t afraid of getting its hands dirty.
The tonal shifts are even more perplexing for the film because you never truly understand what kind of genre dominates this picture. Early on in the movie, I found myself laughing at the awkwardness of Israel having to takeover some of these cases that his deceased colleague tried, but then like a sharp tack, the humor from this script vanished into thin air, favoring a dramatic pulse of direction that stepped forth for the entire second act. During these scenes are when you feel the greatest sense of empathy for Israel because of a world that seems to be advancing around him without him, and even the level from this to the momentum of the earlier scenes felt like two different movies that alienated the other. So what happens towards the end? Strangely enough, the film turns into a bit of an action thriller with one of the most unnecessary car chase sequences that I have ever seen. It goes nowhere after it transpires and left me wondering further if a fight for power was taking place off-screen by the studio, or did Gilroy just never have a clearly defined ending to begin with?
What does keep so much of the inconsistencies at tolerable levels is the versatile performance of one of Hollywood’s last legendary leading men to fruition. Washington portrays Israel with levels of clumsiness and vulnerability that are rarely seen from the decades old professional. Roman’s depiction is honest at all times, so therefore he isn’t always the most likeable presence on camera, bringing to life an original side of Denzel’s character acting that allows him to get fully engulfed into this character for better or worse. Sure, the charisma and smile are still there, albeit behind a gap-toothed prosthetic that further immerses him into detail, but Washington’s spin as this mumbling revolutionary of courtroom law doesn’t take the same short cuts that the script around him does, relaying an idea that this leading man might simply be too good to be subjected to amateur hour. In addition to Washington, Colin Ferrell is also a welcome presence as the head of a big time law firm that hires Israel after his firm goes under. While Colin isn’t in the film a lot, he does make the most of every scene, emoting a refreshingly compassionate side to his character that I didn’t see coming from someone so wrapped in materialism. Washington and Ferrell are the right kind of 1-2 punch to keep ‘Roman J Israel Esq’ floating above the heavy waters of choppy story arcs that nearly sink it.
THE VERDICT – When a film is named after a character, it usually goes without saying that it will be a one man show. However, the ties that bind ‘Roman J Israel Esq’, limit its appeal as a whole because of too much puzzling circumstance in simple storytelling that overly-convolutes its case before it ever reaches the jury of moviegoers deciding its fate. Washington continues to be a Hollywood heavyweight without any of the energy or fiery depositions that his character pieces are known for. But Gilroy doesn’t harvest enough rolling momentum to ever accommodate his leading lawyer, and because of such we experience two men in Israel and Gilroy who feel like they’re being stretched too thin by the world that is crumbling around them.