Film Review: ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Stretches Denzel Washington

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There’s a lot going on in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” that will puzzle you. Some of the choices by filmmaker Dan Gilroy will make you scratch your head. Ditto for star Denzel Washington. There’s also a really strong movie buried underneath. While Gilroy doesn’t always serve Washington well, the iconic actor still manages to become the best thing about the film. Tasked with doing something different, he shines at times and in other instances seems miscast. If all of that makes it seem like the flick is a bit of a mess, that’s kind of the point. Every element on display here has subsections that work, as well as those that really don’t. Washington will be in the thick of the race for a Best Actor nomination though, so fans can rest easy there.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” at its best, is a mostly fascinating character study. At its worst, it feels like a discarded plot for a John Grisham novel. Gilroy is playing around with formula throughout, though he’s far more successful when the movie is a look at the life of the title character. When it tries to be a legal thriller, it’s really clunky and unsatisfying. Washington may struggle at times portraying the tics of the character (more on that later), but when observing his day-to-day life, there’s something compelling here.

For defense attorney Roman Israel (Washington), the law is still something to be idealized and romanticized. His partner at their small firm is front and center in court, while Roman does the grunt work behind the scenes. He’s a genius about the letter of the law, but his interpersonal skills leave something to be desired. Likely somewhere on the spectrum, Roman is looked at as a relic from the past and someone who shouldn’t be given too much to do. He may be wandering around the 21st century, but he would be more in place during the 1960s. When his partner has a heart attack, he heads to court, a place that chews him up and spits him out. Then, he meets big-time attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell).

Pierce has long been the man helping the firm behind the scenes, and with Roman’s partner out of the picture, Pierce recruits Roman to join his massive business. Roman refuses at first, trying to find a place with Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) and her advocacy group. They can’t afford to pay, and eventually, the struggles in Roman’s life get to him. He joins up with Pierce, before making a series of additional decisions that serve to benefit him financially, though potentially compromise him morally. It’s better not to know where things go, partly because the genre elements are patently ridiculous.

The selling point of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is seeing Denzel Washington attempt something new. He’s not completely successful, but he’s always watchable. The tics and quirks of his condition aren’t conveyed well, nor do they seem convincing. Removing that, however, this is Washington sinking his teeth into a role. While the script often lets him down, he makes Roman a three-dimensional character. This won’t compete with his performances in films like “Fences,” “The Hurricane,” or “Malcolm X,” but it’s showy enough that the Academy could still go for it.

With such a focus on the title character, no one else gets time to shine. Among the supporting players, Carmen Ejogo fares the best, since her character is the most consistent, but she’s underused. Colin Farrell is solid, though his role ends up being super cliched by the end. Also on hand in small parts are the likes of Amari Cheatom, Sam Gilroy, DeRon Horton, Amanda Warren, and more. Washington is the show, plain and simple.

What happened, Dan Gilroy? “Nightcrawler” suggested an emerging master. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a mess, filmmaking wise. His direction is slack and lacking in the style from his previous feature. With cinematography by Robert Elswit, that shouldn’t be the case. Ditto for the score by James Newtown Howard and the editing from John Gilroy. The screenplay, well, that’s the big problem here. Gilroy has too many characters change motivations without giving any convincing reason why. Then, there’s the decision to turn the story into a crime drama halfway through. The character study elements fade away and the film suffers.

About that: Part of the thriller aspect involves Roman becoming greedy, while Pierce slowly comes to a more idealist way of thinking. They’re like ships passing in the night, except neither notices and it’s not convincing in any way. Maya stays consistent, but she’s not in it enough to matter. Of all the choices Gilroy made, that one puzzles the most. There’s also the ending, but that bizarre moment will be left for you to discover.

If “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” scores Washington a Best Actor nomination, it will be Oscar overlooking the movie itself and embracing a star trying something different. Your mileage on that may vary, but it’s a storyline worth following this season. The film is too flawed to recommend, but it’s fascinating to watch, in that way that a car crash can sometimes be. It never becomes aggressively bad, partly due to an 11th-hour re-edit after a poor festival debut. It just also never becomes especially good. Alas. If you end up seeing the film, you’ll be seeing it in Washington.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is distributed by Sony Pictures and opens in theaters on November 17.

GRADE: (★★½)

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FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

  • Joey Magidson

    It’s still a mess, but presumably less of one than at TIFF when it premiered.