Roman J. Israel, Esq. Review
If ever there's an actor you can rely on it's Denzel Washington. Even when he’s taken a role in yet another generic action B-movie his warm personality has often remained its saving grace. For the past couple of decades cinema goers have tended to agree which is why his consistently high box office numbers have made him one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. It’s safe to say there aren’t many people who don't love a bit of Denzel. All of which makes it a rarity to see him star in an absolute turkey of a film. It could be because in Roman J. Israel, Esq he’s stepped a little too far outside of his comfort zone. Yes, it's still Denzel we can see under the afro hairstyle and wide rimmed glasses but the level of the performance is not one many people will recognise.
Even though his career is only a fraction as long, it is almost as surprising to see Dan Gilroy in charge of such a disaster. 2014’s Nightcrawler marked him out as a director to watch but following such an impressive debut with this horribly artificial character study comes as something of a surprise. To call it Oscar bait would be generous and to label it a coherent film in any shape or form is simply absurd. Denzel's Roman is a creation who could only ever exist in a film and the contrived nature of his design awkwardly sits at odds with the many real world ideas Gilroy’s script throws into the air.
Roman is a backroom legal savant who has chapters of legislation and case references stored away in his encyclopaedic mind. With his legal partner, William Jackson, at death's door and their small law practice about to be wound up he is offered a lifeline by the slick-suited George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson now heading up a hugely successful legal practice. Roman has the chance to finally earn some real money and chooses to sacrifice the activist principles that saw a once promising career dropped in favour of helping black political causes and the underprivileged. Does he deserve the chance to lift the burden of self-expectation off his shoulders? Or will he completely sell out his beliefs in exchange for money? The reckoning is by the time these questions are raised you won’t care either way.
The blunt opening makes it clear this is a story of redemption for Roman and the flashback structure eventually finds its way to the statement being typed out on his screen at the start. While this is a pretty simple lay-up to follow the structure of the narrative descends into a meandering mess the longer we are forced to follow Roman’s story. The sequence of events make very little sense at all and our understanding of his motivations never materialise. The negative reaction to the screening at TIFF last year saw the film re-cut but the work done in the editing room hasn't made much difference to the end result. Washington simplifies his character's autistic traits into an irritating stream of annoying tics and quirks almost as large as the glasses on his face. Farrell isn’t really asked to do much beyond stand around in expensive suits, while Carmen Ejogo does as well as can be expected in an equally limited role.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the film is how much potential has been squandered. Some genuinely great ideas are either quickly glanced at and forgotten, or overlooked entirely. A clash between new and old activist ideas creates one of the most compelling scenes in the film, which is then buried under the rubble that tumbles onto everything else that follows. The legal complications related to the ethical and moral stances taken by Roman should have made for intriguing inner turmoil but those possibilities come to nothing. Instead, Roman J. Israel, Esq takes the easy way out time and again, relying on lazy ideas based on a man we never come to understand and are never given a chance to do so.