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Nico’s Movie Review: ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Seems Confused

Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube
Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

Roman J. Israel, Esq. still confuses me as a film, even a day after I’ve seen it; I can’t work out how I feel about it, and I don’t mean that in the good way.

Roman tells the story of the title character (Denzel Washington), a lawyer working as the “man behind the curtain” on a criminal defense practice in Los Angeles, headed up by a longtime friend. When said friend suffers a heart attack that renders him catatonic, his family decides to shutter the firm, as it is deeply in debt.

When the firm closes, that leaves Roman to find a new job; in his efforts, he befriends the seemingly idealistic Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who volunteers at a civil rights organization. Roman eventually does find a job, at a mega-firm headed up by George Pierce (Colin Farrell).

Beyond this point, it’s hard to describe the plot, as unfortunately it seems disjointed and unsure of itself. Broadly, it tells the story of an activist attorney with big plans of reforming the criminal justice system, who compromises on his principles for one reason or another.

Really, though, Roman J. Israel, Esq. isn’t a legal drama. It’s definitely a character piece, a tragedy centered around Denzel Washington’s performance. I have to say, he gives a fantastic performance as the savant Roman; he really sells the character, and you forget you’re watching the same man who often plays much more commanding roles. I feel it was clear that the screenwriters attempted to make Roman out to be on the autism spectrum, where he remembers the minute detail of obscure legal cases from years ago, and appears to only eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches over a sink.

Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube
Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

The problem with this film is, the characters beyond Roman are much harder to pin down. For example, Colin Farrell’s performance as George was great, but the character’s motivations are extremely hard to follow. At one point, Roman commits a grave error, one so bad George promises to fire him as soon as he can. However, the next time George is seen, he apologizes to Roman for his “outburst”! What?

My other major problem with this movie is that many interesting ideas are brought up, and never really fleshed out. At one point, Roman gets into a verbal sparring match with some younger activists, who disagree with some of the techniques he uses. The idea of the Old Guard vs New Guard of the civil rights movement would have been incredibly interesting, but that only happens in one scene.

In another scene, Roman brings up to George a massive case he’s been planning for years, that would radically challenge America’s plea deal system on the basis that it violates the 6th Amendment. This case is ignored for most of the rest of the movie, and only brought up tangentially at the end. I would much rather have been watching a movie about that case! THAT sounds really interesting!

Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube
Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

Despite all these complaints, however, I enjoyed this movie. the cinematography and sound design really help us get into the mind of Washington’s Roman, and he is a very interesting character. It’s just unfortunate that that character is stuck in this script.

If you enjoy Denzel Washington, or movies about lawyers, I’d go see Roman J. Israel, Esq. But it’s not the fantastic movie it could have been. See the trailer below.

Next: 'Wonder' Walks A Tightrope

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