FILM REVIEW – ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. With Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated PG-13 for language and some violence. 129 minutes.
When you look at the careers of the great actors and actresses – and Denzel Washington is certainly one of our finest actors – you may notice something: not every film they starred in is a masterpiece. Even the lesser films may offer a performance worth noting, but it doesn’t change the fact that nobody bats 1.000. With the awkwardly-titled ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., Washington creates an intense and flawed character who might be much more fascinating in another movie. The problem here is that his character is stuck in two different movies, neither of which helps the other.
We first meet him as the junior partner of a two-man law firm. The senior partner is revered legal giant, widely respected and revered. Israel is the one who never goes to court but is a whiz at legal research, drafting briefs, and providing the crucial support. As played by Washington, Israel may have a place on the Asperger’s scale: he’s very good at what he does but has trouble relating to people, which is presumably why he was kept back in the office.
Unfortunately, the senior partner has suffered a stroke, and – as becomes clear – will not be returning to work. No one, except Israel, thinks he’s ready to step up and take over. Instead, well-heeled lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), is brought in to shut the place down. So far, so good, as far as the story goes. Israel tries to find another position without any luck, but Pierce sees that Israel brings skills that could be very useful – and highly billable – for his own firm. It is not the best fit.
Midway through the film, Israel makes a bad choice – illegal and unethical – and suddenly this becomes an entirely different movie. Israel, who has been full of righteous indignation at the world’s injustice, is now responsible for one of them. Further, the people he’s crossed are none too pleased and plan to settle the score. Instead of being a psychological portrait of an obsessed lawyer, it turns into a mundane thriller, and one not very thrilling at that. The conclusion is meant to convey Israel’s ultimate triumph, but seems contrived and tacked on.
The problem is not in the performances. Washington has played numerous intensely driven characters and having one being out of step socially and in other ways is an interesting challenge he’s ready to meet. Likewise Farrell, as the bigshot attorney, is able to convey how he’s still touched by the lessons he learned in law school from Israel’s partner. Carmen Ejogo offers nice support as a civil rights organizer who tries to bridge the gap between Israel’s out-of-date approach and today’s activists.
Instead the problem is in the script by Dan Gilroy (who also directed) that bites off more than it can chew. Twelve minutes were cut from the movie after its premiere in September at the Toronto film festival, but what needed to be fixed required work long before the shooting or editing. In setting up a dilemma for its central character and then dropping it for something else, we end up lacking any investment in Israel’s fate, and not even Washington is able to turn that around.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is proof that the presence of a star may be enough to get a film made, but it’s not enough to guarantee that the resulting film will be any good.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.