An unfocused narrative paired with a tour de force in acting.
Denzel Washington is as accomplished an actor there is in Hollywood. Whether you are a film buff or not, you can identify Mr. Washington easily, particularly by only saying his iconic first name, Denzel. One would think at this point in his illustrious career he may be slowing down, but past awards worthy roles in 2007’s American Gangster, 2012’s Flight, and 2016’s Fences prove he is only getting better with age. Pair him with screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy, who’s coming off the success of his directorial debut Nightcrawler, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. should be chalked-up as another victory for Denzel, right?
Denzel Washington stars as Roman J. Israel, Esq., a legal genius but socially inept lawyer who has spent years fighting the good fight for a small law firm in Los Angeles, California. When his partner in the firm unexpectedly experiences a health emergency, Roman finds himself working for the law firm of a former student of his partners’, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). After years of staying true to his values, he finds his morality being challenged due to a deadly case he’s working on with Pierce, while also starting a relationship with a civil rights worker (Carmen Ejogo).
Roman J. Israel, Esq. rests on the shoulders on its iconic star, and Denzel delivers more awards–worthy work as the titular character. Although the character is not entirely likeable, there’s something stunning about Denzel’s transformation into this very intelligent but people skills lacking lawyer. Washington has displayed unbelievable range and has carried films throughout his career, and once again displays his talents in this film.
One has to think it’s bizarre to see him share scenes with Denzel, but Colin Farrell is on his A-game. He may not be able to match Denzel blow for blow, but his supporting part should be highlighted and deserves awards consideration. Carmen Ejogo also delivers a fine performance as well, as she admires Roman’s quirkiness and sees him as an inspiring figure.
The issue that looms large over Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the film’s jumbled narrative. At its core, the film is about a man who abandons his selflessness for a short period of time only to realize it is this quality that makes him who he is. The film takes way too long to set this up, as its main story could be told in under two hours easily, but instead runs for an overlong two hours. Its heavy handedness is also glaring, as there are more subtle ways to depict a redemption story than having your leading man call himself a hypocrite at the beginning of the film and seeing him stray away from his magnum opus civil case to experience the luxuries in life once he is able to obtain them. Director Dan Gilroy made Nightcrawler such a taut, slick thriller back in 2014, so it’s curious to see just how this film managed to escape from him and be so distorted.
It doesn’t help seeing Washington’s character struggle in social situations continuously, which becomes more irritating than endearing after awhile. This is due to the fact Roman is the very definition of someone you wouldn’t trust to park your car. He would not only fail to follow instructions, he would attempt to explain why he didn’t do what you told him to do. This hypothetical situation is similar to many of the actions Roman takes throughout the film, making him rather obnoxious. This handicaps the film, as we typically want to sympathize with the protagonist of a film or at least have a reason to care about them. This is especially troubling when a film with a muddled narrative such as this one needs to be carried by the main character in order to make it a better film. That feeling doesn’t arise until the conclusion, and you’re more likely to react by saying “I told you so” rather than be sympathetic.
Roman J. Israel Esq. isn’t a total misfire, but rather a missed opportunity. The film boasts a capable cast around its star, and features Denzel Washington in yet another tremendous performance. Had the film been more focused, less heavy-handed, and featured a more likeable lead, Roman J. Israel Esq. could’ve been a nice little redemption story. Instead, what we get from Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a tour de force lead performance that can’t quite makeup for its jumbled narrative.
Rating: 2.5 Stars out of 4. Pay Low Matinée Price.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. stars Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nazneen Contractor, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee, and Shelley Hennig. It is in theaters November 17th.