Roman Israel, Esq.

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 22, 2017

'Roman Israel, Esq.'
'Roman Israel, Esq.'  

"Roman J. Israel, Esq." -- as is hinted at by the title -- is one of those erroneous and exalted grails in the American cinema: A character piece. Directors dream of them, actors seek them, the Academy recognizes them, and producers and audiences shun them. The reason these films are considered with such disparity is they represent ideals that industry people base their careers on and accolades that are almost never realized.

Both the leading actor of this film, Denzel Washington (whose all-star presence has breathed this non-commercial narrative into wide release), and writer/director Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler") are baiting this film for Oscar attention. They do this by spending a good deal of time establishing a character that is the antithesis of its actor. And they do it in the most self-conscious and unnatural ways possible, both through appearance (fat suit, bad haircut and big glasses) and attributes (suggestions of obsessive-compulsive disorder and the restricted interests and repetitive behaviors associated with Asperger syndrome). It's a patronizing and poorly conceived way to make a dramatic thriller "important," and it only succeeds in making this movie dishonest.

Fundamentally, Washington's Roman J. Israel is an idealistic criminal lawyer with a commitment to civil rights who lets himself be seduced into criminality by money and power.

When his law partner suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized, this socially awkward attorney must come out from behind his law books to face court and clients. But the cutthroat and moneyed Los Angeles law system doesn't want him. As his desperation increases, Israel has the opportunity to pull an illegal move that will earn some quick money, but will also betray his convictions and his new employer -- the wealthy, attractive and superficial George Pierce (Colin Ferrell).

The money makes everything bad about Roman J. Israel's life turn around, until the consequences and his conscience catch up to him. As the suspense increases, our suspension of disbelief shrinks. And Israel's ideals and his important criticisms of the American legal system (embodied by the activist and potential love-interest Maya Alston [Carmen Ejogo]) become confused and fragmented.

Though this film has been reedited since it first appeared at the Toronto Film Festival, it hasn't been saved from it overwhelming problems. "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is a film that will be disdained by mainstream audiences, hailed by champions of law reform, and panned by the critic. Which category will you fit into?