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Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 12:04 am

Even Washington can’t save Israel

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

 

After seeing Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., I was left with the feeling I hate most when a movie is done – that of frustration. Featuring one of Denzel Washington’s finest performances, the film is tripped up by a conclusion that seems contrived and far too convenient, transformations in character that are too hard to swallow, and an unbelievable timeline of events. To be sure, I sit through many bad movies over the course of a year, but what makes productions such as this so hard to swallow are the glimpses of greatness they provide that go unrealized. Gilroy’s theme – he also wrote the script – is one that’s needed to be shouted from the rooftops right now, as his main character is a flawed human being with a good heart, a man with strong moral convictions who simply cannot convey them properly. I couldn’t help but think there are many people today like the titular character, people who could do some good but are drowned out by the petty and mean-spirited individuals that permeate our society right now.

Roman J. Israel (Washington) has a mind like a steel trap and a talent for writing detailed, ironclad briefs at the drop of a hat. He has an arrangement with his longtime law partner that has been successful for years – he writes the motions and researches the cases while his cohort, the face of their tiny firm, presents them in court. However, when his partner has a stroke and lapses into a coma he never wakes from, Israel is left adrift. Socially awkward and off-putting, he eventually winds up at a high-powered Los Angeles firm run by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), an ex-student of his partner. Realizing Israel is odd, the attorney also recognizes his gift, putting him on a myriad of personal injury cases. Some go well, some not so much, all of which leads him to make a rash, selfish decision with a key piece of information, an act that goes against all he stands for.

Gilroy’s script starts off strong and pulls us in immediately. It initially has the feel and energy of his brother Tony’s Michael Clayton. The legal machinations that propel the film’s first and second acts have a genuine feel about them, and the plot proves intriguing without ever feeling contrived. It’s the kind of movie that sucks you in without you even knowing it.

And then the wheels come off in the third act. One awkward contrivance after another rears its ugly head in an attempt to resolve far too many things in a far too convenient manner. Pierce has an inexplicable change in character, becoming a benefactor for Israel’s lost causes seemingly overnight, while the turn of events that befall the titular character are cheap and much too convenient. All the more troubling is the realization that all these events were supposed to have occurred in the space of only three weeks, a structural gaffe in the script that’s too ridiculous to swallow or overlook.

Equally frustrating is that Washington’s exceptional work is in the service of this faulty script. The actor brings this tortured man to life, presenting all of his faults and foibles with a sincerity that will have you firmly in his corner despite his flaws. Sporting suits that are far too big for him, wound tight throughout yet full of good intentions he struggles to articulate, Washington is at the height of his powers here, giving us a sympathetic portrait of a man simply not made for these times.

From behind the camera, Gilroy lets too many scenes run long, which gives the film a rambling feel and loose structure that makes for a movie that seems longer than it is. But this is a complaint of little consequence as Roman J. Israel, Esq. simply can’t overcome its narrative shortcomings, despite a powerhouse performance from one of our great film actors.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

For a review of The Man Who Invented Christmas, go to the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

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