Sunday 9 September 2018

Movie Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

A character study, Roman J. Israel, Esq. creates a provocative protagonist and explores the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, but with limited success.

In Los Angeles, Roman (Denzel Washington) has worked hard for 35 years and for minimal pay as a researcher for the fledgling two-person law firm of legendary civil rights activist and teacher William Jackson. Roman is a savant, well versed in the law, but socially awkward and lacking in polish and empathy. When Jackson is permanently incapacitated by a heart attack, his estate brings in slick lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) to wrap up the remaining cases and close down the firm.

Roman tries to find work with civil rights activist Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), and although she is sympathetic her organization consists of volunteers. To survive Roman has no choice but to join George's firm, where he is put to work representing underprivileged clients. Roman fumbles the plea bargain of an accused in a botched convenience store robbery turned murder. Growing disillusioned with his life, he decides to reorient and embrace the materialistic world.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Roman J. Israel, Esq is a focussed character study, capturing a late-career shock to the system. The film offers an astounding Denzel Washington performance, playing a ruffled, out of time and out of place man, so intensely absorbed by his ideals he has not noticed the changing world outside his office.

In an echo of Being There, Israel is forced in to the big wide world by the death of his mentor, and discovers a society where his tenacious courtroom skills land him in immediate trouble, lawyers rake in fortunes, and supporters of the cause are volunteers paid nothing. Not to mention that both his wardrobe and hairdo, stuck in the early 1970s, are in desperate need of a makeover.

The film is not as tight as it should be. The 122 minutes of running time are flabby for what is essentially a single-person zoom-in. And surprisingly, despite the length, somewhere in the muddled editing process Gilroy botches a key inflection point in Israel's journey, his betrayal of lawyer-client confidentiality privileges skipping at least one critical detail that needed to be on-screen.

But overall the film offers enough scope to maintain interest. The temptation of leaving behind the purity of the civil rights fight plays out in Roman's stooped and uncertain walk, his tired eyes and his cluttered and depressing apartment. Exposed to the world of riches represented by George's expensive suits and the possibility of moving into a shiny downtown suite, even an awkward legal savant will want to test the waters of a superficially better life. The subsequent moral quandary is treated in an appropriately low key, although the resolution is too tidy on a couple of fronts.

Roman J. Israel, Esq attempts to jolt ahead to catch up with the times, making for a sympathetic but bumpy ride.

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