'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
Rated PG-13: 122 minutes
Two and a half stars out of four
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. At one point it was called "Inner City," which might actually be worse. But just 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" or "Vincent Van Gogh" instead of "Lust For Life."
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, who has written dark indies like "Nightcrawler" and big budgets like "Kong: Skull Island," 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.
Yet Israel is an old-school civil rights warrior who is a lonely genius - someone calls him a "savant" and another says he's a "freak" (both sound about right.) He prefers to pore over legal briefs in his humble apartment while eating peanut butter sandwiches than drive around in a flashy car. (He walks everywhere, which in Los Angeles signifies borderline insanity).
Thrust into the real world, Israel 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. "Public speaking is usually something I'm encouraged to avoid," he confesses.
When his cocoon is finally broken, Israel must fend for himself and try to keep his principles, which becomes harder when he 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? He admits he's "tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful." 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. Set against a Los Angeles that seems in constant flux thanks to never-ending construction, the film mirrors the remaking of its lead character.
Gilroy has peppered the script with some great lines - "Purity can't survive in this world" and "My lack of success is self-imposed" - that Washington almost whispers. The film is also wonderfully scored, with 1960s and '70s soul songs as rich as the dialogue - Al Green, Marvin Gaye, The Spinners and George Clinton.
But there are frustrations, too. 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 savant, why can't he figure out better choices? (You'll be able to see how this film ends 10 minutes before it happens.) His love interest seems tacked on and 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. Soon, an unconventional character is starring in a conventional film.
And then there's that title. Don't get us started.