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With all its fussy and elaborate detail, with the hair and the jacket and the glasses, Denzel Washington’s watchable character study keeps this movie alive. Just about. Writer-director Dan Gilroy tells a convoluted story about a guy inside the judicial system who suffers a dark night of the soul. It reminded me a little of the 2007 film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as the troubled legal fixer, and written and directed by Gilroy’s brother Tony (who served as producer on Dan Gilroy’s previous film, Nightcrawler). With a bit less self-importance and more cheerful cynicism, the story of Roman J Israel, Esq might have made a terrific noir thriller, the sort of film Elmore Leonard or Michael Connelly could have dreamed up. Instead, there’s a sentimental mushiness and sympathetic squishiness here that blurs the dramatic edges of everything, including that of Roman’s own supposed dilemma and the consequence of his actions.
Washington is Roman J Israel, Esq, attorney at law. He is a veteran of social-justice and pro bono work dating from the Black Panther age: a backroom type in a two-person practice who does the research and paperwork while his partner turns on the courtroom pyrotechnics. He disdains computer systems and software for keeping records of his various cases, and favours instead bunches of filing cards kept together with rubber bands, creating a huge universe of information that only he can understand and which for years has been a cocoon in which he has felt entirely at home. He is shambling, messy, with a bulky unflattering jacket and frizzy hair; Roman looks like a nerd version of Don King.
When a health crisis for this partner forces Roman into the limelight, Washington shows how he undergoes something like a late-life blossoming or midlife crisis, yearning to get back into the fray, offering to do voluntary work with an activist group, but finding that his macho and condescending attitudes to women are badly out of joint with the times. And then, beset with suddenly accelerating emotional and financial crises, he faces a fateful decision. An abortive plea-bargain has left him with confidential information as to the whereabouts of a wanted criminal with a no-questions-asked cash reward on his head. All Roman has to do is phone it in anonymously, and he could be very rich, and able to restart his life on a more lucrative, careerist basis.
It’s a fascinating premise, and Washington (who is up for a best actor Oscar for the role) is a star player, styling out his character’s complicated and tricky mix of attributes: an obsessive-compulsive savant who can absorb any amount of detail, yet also a dogged seer of the bigger picture: a wised-up realist who wants to take down the whole plea-bargain racket that puts huge numbers of people – largely young black men – in jail. However contrived, this character is always fully and comfortably inhabited, and Washington brings off the funny moments. When entering the courthouse, Roman plaintively asks if he can be excused putting his iPod through the security scanner, because the last time he did that, a Gil Scott-Heron track lost a lot of its bass notes.
The film’s problem is with Roman’s nemesis and quasi-friend, George Pierce, the unidealistic, sharp-suited lawyer who is tasked with overseeing the practice when Roman’s partner goes into the hospital. He is played by Colin Farrell, a standard-issue “balancing white character” who is the bad guy when it suits the film, but then also the good guy, too: sometimes yelling at Roman or being on the receiving end of his high-minded contempt, but sometimes making common cause with him, improbably becoming principled himself. Carmen Ejogo (who was Coretta Scott King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma) plays Maya, the community defence organiser and activist who has to deal with Roman’s maladroit, faintly baffling but lovably innocent demands to be included in her organisation, and even effectively to take it over.
It’s a fluent and plausible picture, but in its evident desire for something more relatable and humanistic, Roman J Israel, Esq lacks the satirical fizz and comic bite of Nightcrawler. That, too, was about a gawky and difficult guy trying to make his way in the world, but it was tastier and nastier and more entertaining, if not exactly more realistic. In simply pursuing a darker path, Nightcrawler was a sleeker, more streamlined film. Yet through his sheer learned technique and presence, Washington sells this one.
Source: The Guardian
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