Roman J. Israel, Esq.

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What disappointed me about this movie wasn’t that I expect more from Denzel Washington. I mean, did anybody see that disaster that was Fences? I expected more from Dan Gilroy, who a couple years ago wrote one of the best movies of the year — Nightcrawler (Jake Gyllenhaal).

This time out, Washington plays Roman J. Israel, a lawyer who defends poor clients that he feels are being screwed over by the system. His wardrobe, glasses, Afro, and song selections on the Walkman, show that he’s stuck in 1976.

When the attorney he works for dies, you start to realize that Israel might have a few problems. It’s a lot like in Being There when Peter Sellers, a gardener that’s slow, is off on his own after his boss dies and the family doesn’t retain him. We realize from the way he talks and carries himself, that he has issues. You’ll later learn that he’s a savant, and he has obvious Aspergers/Autism traits. As bad as he is in social settings with people, he does have it together enough to communicate with them when it serves the narrative.

At some point, high-powered attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell, who struggles a bit with the American accent) comes in to tie loose ends, and tries to convince Israel to work for him. I can’t tell you much more about the plot without spoiling things.

The weird thing is that in an early scene, we root for Israel as he has a fight with a judge. You can’t not be on his side at that point. Yet every other scene after that, you’re less and less on his side. That makes it hard for us to really like him. We’re also supposed to dislike Pierce, yet he always has persuasive reasons behind his motivations. He’s not just some high-priced attorney that wants to screw everyone over. Yet the story arcs with these two characters while I’m sure Gilroy thinks were brilliant, just don’t feel authentic.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of brilliance. I loved a scene in which Israel speaks at an activists meeting, and things don’t go smoothly when he tries to act chivalrous, and some militant women take that as sexist. And the fact that he’s not very good with people, or disagreements, make you cringe.

That nonprofit group is run by Maya Alston (the beautiful Carmen Ejogo). If Israel was younger (and perhaps not as weird), that might’ve been a love story. Instead, she idolizes his passion for civil rights. That leads to a riveting scene with a homeless person, and a terrific scene in which they have dinner at a fancy restaurant. About eight things happen during that scene that were interesting.

All the scenes with Farrell and Washington on screen together were intriguing. It’s a shame, because Farrell is always great to watch, and Washington is solid with all the tics of this troubled person. It could’ve been an interesting character study. The film just makes little narrative sense.

The soundtrack had original music from James Newton Howard (who did Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, as well as Hunger Games, King Kong, and Maleficent). Israel listened to a lot of Pharoah Sanders and Gil Scott-Heron, and we got to hear the perfectly timed Chamber Brothers classic “Time Has Come Today” (although that song has now officially been used in about 100 movies and needs to be retired).

Hopefully this is just a sophomore slump for Gilroy and he’ll be back strong with his next feature.

I would’ve rather seen a movie on Roman Gabriel than Roman Israel!

2 stars out of 5.

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