In Roman J. Israel, Esq., 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 substance due to, in large part, a lead character that does not work.
Washington’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. (he always refers to himself by his full title) is a fighter for social reform. He longs for real change in the legal system and has no respect for anyone who abuses 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 likely Roman has Asperger’s. This possibility is never really addressed in the screenplay (by Dan Gilroy, who also directed), which is just as well 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), who introduces him to 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), 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.
There is a lot going on, 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 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and financial difficulties who fights between his desire to make a difference and the possibility that his idealism is outdated.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. The writing and direction do not bail Washington out at all by making his journey clichéd and uninspiring.
With Roman J. Israel, Esq., 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. Overall, he has assembled a skilled cast and very capable crew (including Jewish composer James Newton Howard, an eight-time Oscar nominee). But his movie is a collection of scenes without a unifying meaning. It contains 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
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews