It’s getting close to Oscar season, and that means it’s time for an early prediction. Ready? Here goes: The Academy Award for Worst Title of a Motion Picture will surely go to “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
This complex, untidy but ambitious film starring a brilliant Denzel Washington deserves better. Labeling it after its quirky and fictional lead character is a cop-out, like calling a film “Andy Kaufman” instead of “Man on the Moon.”
The difficulty may be because this is an unusual character journey that chews on huge issues not frequently tackled on film. Directed and written by Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” traces the fall from grace of a man not in the predictable way, when he hits rock bottom, but how a broken person actually rises in wealth and esteem.
But Gilroy seems to struggle with what film to make. It often feels like a small, intellectual film is rattling around inside the bones of a more predictable Hollywood legal thriller, mirroring the film’s conflicted lead.
Washington plays Israel, an attorney in modern-day Los Angeles who for decades has been the quiet, backroom brains of a two-person criminal defense firm until he’s called upon to step forward. He’s somewhat ill-equipped to do so — his ratty suits are ill-fitting, his glasses are unfashionable and he listens to an iPod with those old orange-foam headphones.
Thrust into the real world, Israel, an old-school civil rights warrior and a lonely genius, struggles. He may have the entire California legal code memorized, but he’s blunt and unsocial and doesn’t know how to find his email.
Israel falls into the orbit of a slick defense attorney (Colin Farrell, wonderfully understated), who offers a new, snazzy lifestyle. Carmen Ejogo plays a community organizer, the angel to Farrell’s devil. Which will Israel choose? Can idealism be bought?
Washington has done everything he can to inhabit this odd man. He shambles along with a heavy gait, lugging a heavy case and constantly pushes his glasses up with a finger. As he changes, Washington does, too — flashing a forced smile, losing his tics.
But there are frustrations. Israel is stubbornly lost in the ’70s but has an iPod and a flip phone, a transparent attempt by the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it, too. And if he’s such a genius, why can’t he figure out better choices? The film also raises questions it never really answers, like, can the old civil rights strategies really work in today’s fragmented identity politics?
Washington gives us another astounding performance of a deeply idiosyncratic man, but the film around him often isn’t as skillful, meandering in places and gradually becoming more like a lot of other films.
And then there’s that title. Don’t get us started.
‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’
Rated PG-13 for language and some violence.