Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not a good title. It doesn’t roll off the tongue, is hard to remember, and fails to even hint at what type of movie it is. But it might just be a perfect fit for this movie: both the title and the film it represents are awkward misfires. And that’s doubly disappointing, as this film stands as a rare Denzel Washington flop and a major sophomore slump for Dan Gilroy.
Washington stars in the titular role as an introverted attorney with a passion for helping the disadvantaged. But when his longtime firm closes its doors, Roman takes a job working for a ruthless hotshot attorney (Colin Farrell), who places him in a morally compromising position.
At least, that’s what the film starts off as – Roman J. Israel, Esq. shifts from storyline to storyline at the drop of the hat. This is such a poorly structured movie that discussing the plot becomes an unbearable headache, made worse by an ending so out-of-left-field and unearned that audiences will likely feel cheated by the time the credits roll.
The only reason Roman J. Israel, Esq. is at all watchable is because of Denzel Washington, but even his work here is uncharacteristically inconsistent. Washington does a nice job of toning down his typical eccentricities, and convincingly disappears into the part of an introvert after building a reputation as an (often quotable) extrovert. That being said, there are still moments when “classic Denzel” breaks through the cracks and the illusion is lost.
But even then, he stands tall as the MVP of the entire ensemble, with Colin Farrell sleepwalking his way through the part (with a shoddy accent to boot). As a civil rights activist who builds a quasi-romance with Roman, Carmen Ejogo offers a magnetic screen presence, but she’s wildly miscast opposite Washington, as their relationship gives off a father/daughter vibe. But, then again, it’s a miracle she managed to make any impression with such a bad script.
What’s truly baffling about this film, however, is that it comes from the same mind that gave us Nightcrawler, one of the smartest, most original thrillers of the decade. Not only is the story poorly planned, but any sense of nuance or subtlety is lost in clunky narration and heavy-handed dialogue. And while the film’s heart is clearly in the right place, its moral compass is in desperate need of fine-tuning. Sometimes the film will practically scream a message about tolerance and civil rights to the audience and, the next, it’s entirely unclear who we’re supposed to root for onscreen.
One painfully awkward sequence finds Roman preaching about the civil right leaders of the 1960s and how their influence is still felt today only to, literally seconds later, “mansplain” feminism to two female activists. Is Roman supposed to be right in this scene? Is he supposed to be a complex, multi-faceted character the audience should have complicated feelings towards? Or is he supposed to come off as a jerk? The film isn’t sure, thus the audience won’t know. Even worse, they probably won’t care.
It’s always a shame when talented directors and actors waste their time on a bad project. But it’s even worse when the film feels like a personal project that just completely fails to connect. At an overblown 129 minutes, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess that’s only memorable for how strangely bad it is. For a film that wants to make its audience think, the biggest question is: why did so many talented people waste their time on this project?
Rating: 4 out of 10