Denzel Washington’s strong performance isn’t enough to overcome the meandering narrative and moments of utter boredom in Roman J Israel Esq.
Our story centers around a socially awkward Lawyer named Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), and the events that occurr over a three-week span following the death of his boss. George Pierce (Colin Farrell) takes over the caseload left by his boss, and he immediately sees Israel’s talent. Pierce hires him, which set forth a sequence of events leading Washington’s character to break the law.
Washington’s performance is one of the lone highlights of the film for me. Saying that one of the greatest actors of my generation was excellent is probably not that shocking to anyone, but he’s the one reason to sit through the film. Washington manages to breathe life into a character that was written poorly, inserting specific quirks and making the character memorable.
What Didn’t Work
Dan Gilroy’s narrative just doesn’t connect with the audience. It comes as a surprise to me (Gilroy was responsible for the fabulous screenplay for Nightcrawler), but he attempts to accomplish too many things over the span of the film. What’s most interesting in Israel’s story is the moral dilemma he faces working a case for Pierce. However, the film spends way too much time talking about social injustice, poverty, and the obligation to make a societal impact. It goes broad when it should have narrowed.
Farrell’s character serves little purpose in the film. While he was meant to represent the “corporate” side of practicing law, Pierce is really just here to push the plot forward. Other than that, all he does is look good in a suit and lament about selling out.
The pacing of the film is all over the pace. During the first act, we appear to race through the death of his boss and the eventual arrival of Pierce. Then during the second act, we slow down to a snail’s pace while Israel laments about being poor, social injustice, and what’s right. The most exciting portion of the film is the third act, and that doesn’t even come around for about one hour and twenty minutes into the movie.
They attempt to create romantic tension by introducing Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) to Mr. Israel, and it doesn’t go as planned. The idealistic Alston begins to take a liking to Washington’s character, abut that dynamic feels weird and out of place in the middle of this story. Why try and force something so unnecessary?
There is no scenario where anyone can plausibly recommend this film. Washington’s performance at least makes the movie watchable. Without him, Roman J Isreal Esq would be a complete waste of time.