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With: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Vince Cefalu, Tarina Pouncy, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Jocelyn Ayanna
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some violence
Running Time: 129
Date: 11/17/2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Practicing Blah

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As with his harrowing directorial debut Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy tells the story of a brilliant, ill-fitting outsider in a vivid workplace, but the movie fails due to puzzling, choppy character arcs.

In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Roman (Denzel Washington) is a brilliant lawyer who is better working behind the scenes than he is with people, and tries to help the downtrodden without making much money. When his longtime partner suffers a heart attack, Roman is thrust back into the real world. His firm has been losing money, so he is given a new job in the office of George Pierce (Colin Farrell).

When he makes a mistake cutting a deal with opposing counsel, a client is murdered in prison and Roman takes the blame. In a moment of weakness, he decides to turn in the dead man's partner, a shooter in a corner store robbery, and collect a nice reward (which is illegal). He enjoys the reward and finds that life is getting better, until the man he turned in hires his services. Roman must decide whether to protect himself, or hold true to his longtime principals.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. starts promisingly with a strong, central performance by Denzel Washington, possibly a savant, wearing old, bulky clothes and oversized glasses, unsure of how to act around people, but extremely sure of his job. Director Gilroy establishes a ramshackle, stressed-out Los Angeles, full of noise and clutter and homeless people on sidewalks. Roman navigates these things assuredly, as long as human interaction is not required.

Then, the plot kicks in. Roman's first major decision makes very little sense, according to what we've seen; subsequent decisions built on this one likewise fail to hold water. Perhaps worse, the movie's main supporting character, Colin Farrell's powerful George Pierce, keeps changing his stance. He initially seems like a villain, then turns kind, then villainous, and finally kind again; we can't trust him, even when he seems to genuinely care about Roman.

A third character, a pretty activist lawyer, Maya (Carmen Ejogo) feels completely tacked on and entirely too convenient. The whole movie leaves off with an unsatisfying thud, perhaps having done too much when less would have been more interesting.

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