Geek Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

I had a particularly busy weekend this past weekend.  I work as a teacher for a college prep school and proctored the SAT and graded a large stack of essays.  As such, I nearly didn’t go to the movies like I do most weekends, particularly since I don’t exactly live in a big market so the awards bait stuff takes a couple weeks to get to my neck of the woods.

But I finished up and got some cabin fever, so I went to see Roman J. Israel, Esq.  All I knew about the movie was Denzel Washington played a lawyer and the Rotten Tomatoes score was low.  So, how was it?

I am not sure what to make of this one, truth be told.

Washington plays the title character of Roman J. Israel, Esq.  That’s how he introduces himself.  He’s a lawyer, part of a two-man team at a small law firm that works criminal defense cases.  Roman doesn’t go to court.  He does all the research and his partner goes to court.  Then when his partner (whose face and voice are kept from the audience) suffers and heart attack and goes into a vegetative state, Roman finds himself unemployed.  A onetime activist-type, Roman’s savant-level knowledge of the law gets him a job with a high-powered defense attorney named George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Roman’s old partner who is finishing out the firm’s cases.

Now, Roman as played by Denzel is shown to be, well, something else.  I was wondering if he was supposed to be an undiagnosed autistic type, but the movie never says.  With his unkempt hair, ever-present battered headphones, large glasses, and plodding walk (plus, it looks like Denzel put on weight for the role), Roman doesn’t seem to know how to deal with people.  He’s idealistic, but his ideals are both stuck in the past and a future that will probably never come.  His big dream is a massive class-action suit to reconfigure the plea bargain system that he’s been plodding away on for years.  And somehow he inspires people.

And that’s where the movie made me wonder.  Outside of Washington’s natural screen charisma, I wasn’t sure why Pierce and other characters within the movie would be inspired by Roman.  He would probably come across as more of a bumbling pain-in-the-ass.  Likewise, the movie’s three week timeline never feels right.  It is to the movie’s credit that Farrell’s Pierce is never presented as a villain, a man more interested in profit than justice (though profit is still important), but what it is about Roman that moves him and others to be better is a mystery to me.  Still, Denzel Washington is one of those actors that can elevate bad material through sheer force of will alone.  Seven out of ten bulldog statues.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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