Review by J.T. Johnson
DIRECTOR: Dan Gilroy
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Robert Elswit
WRITER: Dan Gilroy
MUSIC: James Newton Howard
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a film that tries to say a lot of things. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite know how to say those things. That’s an ultimately sad fact when you realize that there is a potentially powerful character at the center of it all.
The titular character, played by Denzel Washington, is a lawyer for a small Los Angeles firm. While his partner was the main man in the court room, it was Roman acting behind-the-scenes that delivered most of the cases. After his partner has a heart attack, Roman realizes that the firm has actually been broke this entire time and there is no compensation for Roman, a man who has been fighting the good fight since the Civil Rights Movement.
When he can’t get a job anywhere else, Roman takes a position at a more prestigious firm headed up by George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Eventually, Roman has the chance to do something that is legally wrong, but it is also something that could also set him up for quite some time. For the first half of this film, though, we get a preachy film that tries to tell us just how sad the state of affairs is with today’s attempts at social activism.
It also has random messages peppered throughout that never quite stick the landing. For example, tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Our hero comes across a homeless person lying on the ground and checks on him to make sure he’s okay and at the same time a cop car pulls up. How do you think the cops act in this scene?
That’s right! It’s the now cliché “all cops are bad” scene. The only problem is that this appears to be the only point of the scene. It never leads anywhere else and you never see those particular cops again. On the other hand, the film takes the über rich lawyer played by Farrell and is quick to develop him into the lawyer with the heart of gold that only appears to be a heartless shark.
During the second half of the film, Roman is having to deal with the ramifications of the choice he made about halfway into the story. This means that any attempts to clarify the film’s earlier messages are dashed when the film transforms into a half-baked morality play. In short, the film is all over the place and it takes forever to pretty much go absolutely nowhere.
This is even more frustrating by the fact that at the center of it all is Washington, an actor that is completely committed to the part he has been tasked with performing. In fact, this may very well be one of the finest performances the veteran actor has ever given. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie never rises to the performance and it is an almost instantly forgettable affair.