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Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Premise: A legally brilliant but socially awkward attorney (Denzel Washington) does the background work for a social justice law firm. When the firm’s lead attorney dies suddenly, Israel must take his place and he becomes frustrated with the legal system. 

What Works: There are a few interesting visuals in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film contrasts the way in which the legal system works for people with money and doesn’t for those who don’t. That is reinforced in the visual style of the movie which changes as the title character climbs the social ladder.

What Doesn’t: Roman J. Israel, Esq. wants to be a message film about the way the legal system is rigged against those who cannot afford quality representation. That’s an admirable cause but it gets lost in the rest of the story. This is primarily the tale of a man seduced by money but his corruption is divorced from the cause of the movie. The title character of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a legal savant who doesn’t have the social skills necessary to be a good courtroom attorney. His corruption has little to do with his idealism. Israel gets frustrated with his lack of money and the precariousness of his life and so he sells out a client for a financial reward. For a guy who is supposed to be brilliant, Israel makes a lot of stupid mistakes and his choices are inconsistent with a man who is supposedly committed to civil rights. There is a difference between complex characters, who sometimes betray their ideals, and sloppy storytelling. Roman J. Israel, Esq. tends toward the latter. The plot feels like patchwork; scenes are disconnected from each other and the movie doesn’t build toward its ending. The critique of the justice system gets lost in the narrative detours and when the story finally comes back around to it, the topic feels tagged on. The filmmakers don’t demonstrate Israel’s legal skill; we’re told that he’s very knowledgeable but the story never shows that knowledge put to use. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is intended as a character study but he remains a distant and unknowable character. We’re given a lot of awkwardness and personality ticks but few moments define who this man is or what motivates him. Part of the problem is the miscasting of Denzel Washington in the lead role. There is a difference between a movie star and an actor; Washington is the former. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of range and this character is very different from the kinds of roles Washington usually plays. His confident and charming persona is out of place in Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Washington frequently slips out of character.

Bottom Line: Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a disappointment. There are pieces of an interesting and provocative story here but they never come together. The movie is a mess and Denzel Washington is miscast in the title role.

Episode: #677 (December 10, 2017)