In Roman J. Israel, Esq., two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington plays the title character, a lawyer used to working behind the scenes whose life undergoes some major changes after his partner/boss suffers a heart attack. It is a film with a lot of ideas that never coalesce into anything of real substance due to, in large part, a lead character that just does not work.
Washington’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. (he always refers to himself by his full name and title) is a fighter for social reform. He longs for real, permanent change in the legal system and has no respect for anyone who uses the system for their own gain. His partner mainly has him work in the office because Roman is not good with people. He has trouble keeping his contempt for others to himself. My own (very amateur) opinion is that it is very likely that Roman has Asperger’s. This possibility is never really addressed in the screenplay (by Dan Gilroy (a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2015 for Nightcrawler), who also directed), which is not necessarily a negative since that is not what the movie is about. However, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is mainly a character study and when, as a viewer, I am unable to truly understand the main character’s ambitions and motivations, than I am also unable to get into the drama of the story.
After Roman’s boss is incapacitated, he is taken in by another lawyer, George (Colin Farrell, in his third film this year after The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), who introduces him into the world of big business legal practices. The suspense in the film comes from whether or not Roman will go against his own ideals in an effort to make a buck. There is also an activist, Maya (Carmen Ejogo, also seen this year in horror films It Comes at Night and Alien: Covenant), who admires Roman for his beliefs and might be able to get him to come out of his shell and go back to his roots.
Based on this description, you probably think you know where this movie is headed and you may very well be correct. But the pieces never seem to fit together properly. There is a plot turn midway through that seems driven by a desire to inject artificial suspense into the story. It does not really work because it does not seem inspired by anything we have seen onscreen.
But Roman J. Israel, Esq. is about its main character, not its plot. If that character was compelling, the other issues with the screenplay would be less bothersome. This brings me back to my biggest issue with the film, Roman himself. It is interesting in concept: Denzel Washington playing an activist lawyer with social and financial difficulties who fights between his desire to make a difference and the possibility that his idealism is outdated. Unfortunately, Washington struggles, and fails, to make Roman engaging onscreen. He is mean, selfish and arrogant and the writing and direction do not bail Washington out at all by making his journey clichéd and uninspiring.
With Roman J. Israel, Esq. (114 minutes before the end credits), Dan Gilroy tries to tell a dark story about human nature and personal success versus personal beliefs. In Denzel Washington, he has about as good an actor for the role he has written as you could ask for. But his movie is a collection of scenes without a unifying meaning. It feels like he had something specific in mind about social justice and how, as a society, we have lost our way. But that is just me grasping at straws. This is a movie with a few good scenes and some good directorial touches. But the director side of Gilroy was unable to get enough out of the unformed script created by his writer side.
2¼ out of 5
Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Colin Farrell as George Pierce
Carmen Ejogo as Maya Alston
Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy