Roman J. Israel, Esq.
I am, admittedly, not a huge fan of Denzel Washington. While I think the man is a relatively talented actor in his own right, I find that the praise he gets often seems disproportionate to his work. He’s given moving performances, absolutely, but the vast majority of the time, he seems to play some version of the same character. Maybe not in terms of occupation or lifestyle, but in mannerisms, speech patterns, and idiosyncrasies, Washington seems to fill out characters the same way almost every time. Either he’s at the point in his career where scripts are being written with him in mind, thus the characters are designed to fit his “type,” or he bends characters to his will during production. Either way, it’s become tiresome for me to see him in at least one major movie every year, almost always to significant praise. I guess I’ve just begun to find his shtick rather dull.
So when I heard about Roman J. Israel, Esq., seemingly another star-vehicle Oscar-bait picture featuring Washington, I was almost certain of mediocrity, at least from my perspective, if not also from a more objective one. Washington plays an old-fashioned, hard-bitten, “stick it to ya” lawyer (who shares his name with the movie title) trying to find work in the aftermath of his longtime legal partner’s incapacitation and inability to keep the firm afloat. Based on the trailer, it would seem that Washington is at it again with his one-trick pony style of performing. But what the trailer doesn’t really show you is Mr. Israel’s eccentricities. He’s a bit neurotic, he’s simultaneously very confident in himself and very socially awkward, and he’s very possibly some degree of autistic. These traits manifest themselves into a man who knows the law like the back of his hand and has memorized every case he’s ever worked on, down to exact numbers of each type of case ever handled by his firm in his 20- to 30-year career. And to my pleasant surprise, Washington doesn’t just feel like Denzel Washington again. He embodies the ticks, stutters, and body language of a man with unbreakable conviction and a near-total lack of self-awareness. It’s a sight to behold. It’s one of the few of Washington’s performances of the last decade–maybe the only one–that I would recommend seeking out. It’s just plain good. And credit should also go to writer/director Dan Gilroy for creating an interesting character to build the movie around.
Unfortunately, however, it’s the surrounding movie that seems to be the problem. The plot can’t quite decide what’s its trajectory is: what is the conflict? Who is the antagonist? Is it Mr. Israel himself? How the hell are they going to end this? What’s the point?! The movie never quite settles on answers to any of these questions, leading the viewer on a series of mini-conflicts that Mr. Israel must navigate (most of which he creates for himself), none of which really feel like they contribute to an overarching meaning or even a cohesive story. It’s almost as if Mr. Israel were the main character of a series of novels that were all adapted into one single movie and then put through a blender. There’s a number of arcs that go mostly unresolved: Israel’s mission to find purpose and work in the aftermath of his firm shutting down at the opening of the film; his maybe-more-than-professional-but-too-brief-to-tell relationship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a social activist and protest leader, whom he meets during his hunt for a new job; his attempt to bring meaningful work to his new job at to the lofty, glitzy law offices of legal giant George Pierce (Colin Farrell) via a supposedly groundbreaking, history-making class action lawsuit, about which we never learn anything except that it Israel totes around a one-foot-thick stack of documents pertaining to the case; and Israel’s sketchy plan to make some money off of a criminal reward, and the consequences that ensue, which end up playing as the “main” conflict during the third act, but which is neither set up nor resolved well enough to add significant interest to an otherwise engaging character study. All of these arcs have a clear beginning, but they thin out and become difficult to follow as they intertwine, making for a somewhat entertaining but ultimately confusing and disjointed story.
Additionally, editing and transitional flow is a pervasive issue, as things seem to just happen, one after the other, without a sense of chronology or cohesive timing. Cinematography ranges from subtly picturesque to overbearingly tight and cluttered, and the movie features maybe a few too many extreme facial close-ups. The groovy 70s funk and motown soundtrack adds a bit of levity and frames the mindset of Mr. Israel himself, but the original score often feels too obvious and overpowering for its own good. The cast, on the other hand, mostly brings their best to the table, making for interesting characters, even if they’re a bit underdeveloped.
In all, Roman J. Israel, Esq. works best as a series of events about a very interesting person, but its parts mostly fail to add up to a satisfying whole. If you’re a Denzel fan (or even a Denzel doubter, like me), check it out just to see his performance; that alone may be worth the matinee price. Otherwise, Roman J. Israel makes for an intriguing but frustratingly incomplete story.