By Kim Hughes
A rambling square peg of a film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is at least three movies rolled into one and hugely challenging to summarize. Still, it’s kind of worth seeing, both for star Denzel Washington’s itchy performance and because it’s just so oddly, unexpectedly patchwork.
When we first meet the title character (Washington), it’s unclear what decade we are in. A lawyer with an Afro, a flip phone, and an office full of sticky notes, Israel has just learned his long-time partner — the frontline defence attorney to Israel’s backroom strategist — has suffered a massive heart attack. Israel must jump into that day’s courtroom fray.
It’s immediately clear that Israel is some kind of legal savant and possibly on the spectrum. We know this because he can pull arcane legal precedent from thin air, but can’t schmooze or shut up when under threat of contempt from a judge.
We also learn it’s present day, but Israel is a throwback sort of guy, preferring old school vinyl albums and mile-wide lapels. That’s also a cue to Israel’s back story as a fist-waving anarchist and activist; dimwits can note the Angela Davis poster on his crumbling apartment wall.
Now enter Colin Farrell, a sharp-dressed, BMW-driving legal eagle and a protégé of Israel’s noble fallen partner, who, it turns out, was running the office at a serious deficit in order to defend the poor. Conscience versus commerce, golden ideas of old versus disposable ones of new. Got it. Yard lines established.
Farrell’s George Pierce is going to dissolve the business. But where would that leave the awkward and ill-attired Israel, who is otherwise unemployable… yet a legal mastermind? Sensing opportunity, Pierce makes Israel an offer this lefty zealot should refuse, but doesn’t, perhaps sensing that his masterwork — a constitutional challenge that will emancipate those unjustly imprisoned or soon to be — can take flight with the backing of a prestigious, intensely for-profit nouveau L.A. law firm. Oookay… yard lines shift.
Suddenly, amid all the fluorescently lit office splendour and a regular paycheque, Israel’s morals start falling away and Israel — suddenly in the thrall of a dishy activist like his former self, but you know, female — crosses a dangerous line. Thanks to the spoils of that crossed lined, Israel starts dressing better, going out for fancy dinners but his choices are certain to compromise him at best, doom him at worst.
And here’s the kicker: the whole mind/spirit/wardrobe boomerang overhaul thing happens in just three weeks.
At once a morality play, a vigorous defence of outsiders, and some kind of rumination on the sorry state of the U.S legal system — also a tip of the hat to good friends because… friends! — Roman J. Israel, Esq. is sprawling and loose to the point of semi-incoherence, which is odd since writer/director Dan Gilroy walked the line of ethical ambiguity so nimbly with 2014’s Nightcrawler.
When the narrative threads lock together, it’s fascinating to watch, especially as Washington conjures a character clearly in crisis who is repulsive and sympathetic in equal measure. But this really is a mess, a glorious, well-acted mess. Rubberneckers: your must-see has arrived.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and Carmen Ejogo. Opens wide November 22.