September 13, 2017
‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Review: Denzel Washington Can’t Save This Meandering Drama [TIFF]
Writer Dan Gilroy made an exciting directorial debut with 2014’s excellent Nightcrawler, a Los Angeles-based character study with a strong lead performance. Now Gilroy is back with yet another character study set in L/A. Sadly, lightning doesn’t strike twice for Gilroy – his new film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess.
Like Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. has a strong actor in the lead, yet Denzel Washington is never quite able here to reach the same heights that Jake Gyllenhaal reached in Nightcrawler. Washington is the Roman J. Israel, Esq., a civil rights attorney who has worked behind the scenes for more than three decades. His law partner, who had more of a stomach for the meat grinder that is the justice system, was the face of the firm, while Roman kept to himself.
Roman is brilliant, and quite possibly has Asperger syndrome (the film never makes this entirely clear). He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, but isn’t so good at interacting with other people. He also seems to be trapped in the ’70s, not entirely aware of how much of the culture he’s familiar with has changed.
Everything starts to change for Roman when his law partner, William Henry Jackson, has a heart attack and ends up in a vegetative state with no chance for recovery. Jackson’s daughter wants to dissolve the firm, and brings in slick, well-dressed, high-price attorney George (Colin Farrell) to get this job done.
George is a somewhat interesting character, and Farrell is quite good in the part. At first blush, George seems like he’s going to be the film’s antagonist – a soulless, greedy lawyer who only cares about his retainer. But George sees something in Roman, and offers him a job at his large law practice. Roman resists at first, but money woes make him reconsider.
Around this point, don’t be surprised if Roman J. Israel, Esq. has you restlessly checking your watch. The film begins to feel like all set-up: we keep waiting for something like a story or conflict to actually kick in. Gilroy’s script keeps introducing threads, like the friendship Roman strikes-up with a non-profit organizer (Carmen Ejogo), or the young man in jail for taking part in a convenience store robbery that went horribly wrong, or the massive brief Roman has spent years preparing with a plan to reform the justice system as everyone knows it. But none of it really clicks.
At the center of it all is Washington’s memorable performance. It’s a bit too showy and full of tics, but Washington manages to rise above the choppy screenplay and create a compelling character with Roman.
Eventually, Roman betrays everything he stands for in the name of money. Ah-ha, you think. Here at last is the actual crux of the matter! Only it really isn’t. After Roman performs an illegal activity to get his hands on some money, the film goes right back to meandering, adding an almost painfully long section where Roman rides a train, eats some donuts, takes a dip in the ocean and buys some expensive suits. It’s apparently meant to be a big character moment, but it just drags on.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is too meandering for its own good. Gilroy is obviously a talented writer – he has a wealth of credits to his name – and Nightcrawler showed him to be a promising new director. There are a few visual flourishes to Roman – like when Gilroy goes in extremely close on Roman’s face during a revealing conversation with Ejogo’s character and blurs the focus of everything outside of the frame–- but none of the energy or life on display in Nightcrawler is present here. Hopefully, this will be nothing more than a sophomore slump and Gilroy will come bouncing back with a better film. For now, though, Roman J. Israel, Esq. should probably be stricken from the record.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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