Denzel Washington, in his inexplicably Oscar-nominated titular role of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” serves up a steaming bowl of plot soup as a lawyer committed to social justice, even while he is himself socially inept. The film starts off as an interesting story with a procedural kind of plot about reform of the justice system, and also asks what a misfit like Roman will do with himself after a sudden change in his professional circumstances. The answer to that question ends up being utterly preposterous.
Photos | Sony Pictures Entertainment / Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Evoking the revolutionary spirit of the past in both his clothing and his outlook, Roman wants to keep on truckin’ after the sudden death of his partner, a renowned criminal defense lawyer who was the public face of their partnership. Roman, meanwhile, worked tirelessly, effectively and very cheaply back at the office, writing briefs and generally trudging along with the help of a Rain Man-like recall of facts — and what I think is meant to be a quirky reliance on Post-it notes and other luddite office supplies.
Initially, Roman Israel has some provocative character contradictions. You expect that once this weirdo is suddenly out in the open, his lawyerly prowess will stun you. Instead, he is indeed as inept in the courtroom as his partner thought.
Consigned to his proper place as a foot soldier in a new law firm headed by hotshot Colin Farrell, we prepare ourselves as viewers for things to gel. Instead, the characters double down on making no sense whatsoever.
Farrell is sometimes a money-grubbing shark, and then randomly displays a noble spirit. When he first shows up, Roman wonders how a person like Farrell could possibly fit into the story, and I am here to tell you that this never makes sense. In movies, there are plot twists, and then there is total nonsense. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the latter. The total lack of narrative consistency is infuriating, especially because the first part of the film is actually intriguing.
I don’t think I could spoil this film if I tried, because it made so little sense, but I’ll just say that Roman, after establishing himself as an annoying but upstanding person, does something illegal for money that makes the whole film jump every rail/shark it has bothered to set up.
Meanwhile, a beautiful younger activist continues to appear in the film and swear tearfully that he is a profound inspiration to her and her work. Surely she is watching a different film.
What makes “Roman J Israel, Esq.” more than merely bad is that it’s so astonishingly erratic and so long and complicated. It seems like someone worked really hard to siphon out any logic in the storylines, to take any characterization that the actors might have brought to the screen and subvert it.
We could have had a pulpy drama with Denzel Washington doing a simplistic Asperger’s kind of character that gets sucked into a violent crime, or we could have had a talky drama with Denzel Washington doing a simplistic Asperger’s kind of character who gets sucked into an uplifting courtroom story. Instead, the filmmakers blended these two concepts, pulverizing any dramatic coherence, and leaving us with a talented actor in a bad suit, letting a slightly messy afro stand in for character development, and leading to this actor getting an Oscar nomination.
“Roman J Israel, Esq.” is currently available to rent.
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