From time to time during Oscar season, we come across films quite disappointing despite talented people behind them, and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is one of such dismal examples. Although looking promising to some degrees at first, the movie eventually becomes an aimless and lifeless dud which will bore and confuse you for many glaring reasons including trite dialogues and uninteresting characters, and it is all the more disappointing to see one of the greatest performers of our time struggling in this insipid turkey.
Denzel Washington plays Roman J. Israel, a middle-aged lawyer who has worked in a tiny law firm in LA for many years but never had much court experience. While it is apparent from his social ineptness and obsessive-compulsive behavior that he is on autistic spectrum, Roman is also a brilliant legal expert who can instantly talk about any legal precedent he encountered before, and he has surely been a big help to his boss, who is the only other lawyer of their law firm besides Roman and has always taken care of those legal procedures at the court instead of him.
However, there comes a sudden big change. Not long after Roman begins another day at his law firm, his boss’ secretary tells Roman that his boss had a serious heart attack and then was taken to a hospital. He is instructed to go to the court instead of his boss and then request continuances, but, not so surprisingly, he does not do his job very well. At one point, he clashes with a judge just because he cannot keep his mouth shut, and he is subsequently sentenced to $5,000 fine.
As Roman’s boss is in permanent coma with no chance of regaining his consciousness and the law firm has been in a pretty bad financial status, someone needs to take care of this trouble, and that person is George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a hotshot lawyer who once studied under Roman’s boss a long time ago. As Roman’s boss requested in advance, Pierce is going to liquidate the law firm and then give Roman a position in his prominent law firm, but Roman does not accept Pierce’s offer as sticking to his belief and integrity, and we soon see him clumsily attempting to be employed elsewhere.
And that is how he happens to encounter Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), a community activist who is initially baffled by Roman’s anti-social attitude and odd appearance but somehow impressed by his ideal and passion. Later in the story, she invites him to a meeting for giving him a chance to talk in front of a group of young people, but, of course, that turns out to be not a wise choice. While his idealistic opinion may be worthwhile to listen to, his viewpoint is hopelessly out of touch with his young audience, and he soon finds himself tumbling into an unnecessary argument when one of the young audiences in the meeting is offended by his rather sexist remark.
Eventually, Roman accepts Pierce’s offer and then starts to work in Pierce’s law firm, but he soon causes unintentional conflicts with others in the law firm, and then he comes to make a very big mistake. While handling the case of a young black man involved with a robbery murder incident, he botches up the negotiation with a prosecutor due to his lack of social skills, and that results in a devastating consequence which affects not only him but also the law firm.
Around that point, director Dan Gilroy’s screenplay takes an inexplicable left turn along with its hero. Roman decided to do something which is quite contrary to everything he has believed in, and he also changes himself a lot in the process. After obtaining a considerable amount of money via his misdeed, he buys new slick suits to replace his usual frumpy attire, and he also rents an expensive apartment which certainly looks a lot better than his current residence located in some shabby building. Looking much more well-adjusted than before, Roman comes to gain more trust and goodwill from Pierce and others in the law firm, and it seems everything will be fine for Roman.
As you have already guessed, there comes an inevitable moment when Roman confronts the consequence of his choice, and the movie tries to generate some dramatic tension in the story, but it frequently fails to engage us due to its serious deficiency in story and characters. Except a number of autistic traits, Roman does not have many personal details to interest us, and the supporting characters around him are more or less than plot devices. In case of a certain big case Roman has been obsessed with for years, we hear about how important it will be for the justice system, but the movie never delves much into this case, and we are only baffled when the movie suddenly thrusts this case into its lackluster ending.
The main performers of the movie do try, but they are constantly limited by their superficial characters. Washington, who somehow received an Oscar nomination for this film, looks awkward and ridiculous with stereotype attitude and behavior which may look offensive to autistic people, and this will probably be one of the least interesting acting turns in his stellar acting career filled with many better performances. Carmen Ejogo, a wonderful actress who has been more notable since her strong supporting turns in “Selma” (2014) and “Born to Be Blue” (2015), acquits herself well despite her artificial scenes, and Colin Farrell manages to keep his dignity intact although his character’s eventual change of heart is not particularly convincing.
By the way, according to the IMDB trivia, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” went through considerable re-editing after its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, and around 12 minutes of footage was removed from the original version as a result. The movie is still a mess nonetheless, and now I am thinking about how much I was impressed by Gilroy’s previous film “Nightcrawler” (2014), which is a far better character study than “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” While watching that film, I was totally absorbed into its drama even though I did not like its sociopathic hero at all. In case of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, I only observed it from the distance while not giving a damn about its story or characters, and, in the end, I was left with nothing particularly good enough to talk about. To be frank with you, I really wish the people involved in this serious misfire will soon move onto something better in the future.