Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action.
If Denzel Washington is going to continue to choose films that revolve entirely around him, his characters had better be dynamic and significant. Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq., the lead character of the film by the same name, is neither. Roman is a lawyer with a quirky persona who possesses a strong sense of justice from his civil rights background. He is mildly challenged with a spectrum disorder or is some kind of savant as exhibited by his limited social capacity and his ability to recite every detail of every court case he’s ever encountered in legal history. He is a throwback to the 60s, living in modern America: dressing out of fashion with an unruly afro and big clunky glasses; listening to good, older jazz on a Walkman; and talking on a flip phone – texting is beyond him. I wanted to care about Roman and was hopeful that his fiery spirit and unique awkwardness would be both endearing and inspirational. Sadly this was not the case.The movie fumbles along for over 2 painful hours while the viewer waits and hopes for something to make sense. The characterization of Roman is inconsistent, as though there are major pieces of a puzzle missing. He is portrayed for the first long hour of the film as a die-hard champion of justice, especially for the underprivileged, and we are made to feel a bit sorry for him (if it weren’t for his inappropriate outbursts that come across as less than irresistible). He even makes a love connection with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who is deeply moved by Roman’s ideals in a way I wish I had been. It is at this point when the film falls flat, and I realized it is meandering, without a real purpose. Roman, after losing his job, eventually chooses, mainly out of survival, to take an offer to practice law with a hard-nosed but principled lawyer, George, played convincingly by Colin Farrell. Roman originally believes that working for George’s high-powered firm is like “selling out,” but George has a soft spot for Roman and helps him to thrive in his new position. Then suddenly, without rhyme or reason, Roman makes a severe, morally uncharacteristic choice that ends tragically. Given he is such a creature of habit (eating peanut butter sandwiches the same way at the same time for decades it seems) it simply does not make sense for him to veer so deeply off course when there was no real need for it. Though life can always be better, he has a full-time job with a stable income, so this sudden temptation to compromise everything he has ever stood for is inexplicable. Due to his gain, Roman quickly transitions, uncharacteristically, from a vagabond of sorts to a slick, high-powered lawyer in his own right almost overnight, where he rises to the top of the firm having gained everyone’s respect. Sadly, the only thing that triggers an epiphany in Roman is when he gets caught, also out of character for him, given his grave spirit of social and legal justice; it seems he does not have much of a conscience after all. Since he is the protagonist, whom we are supposed to be rooting for, this narrative choice is not that wise—and perhaps even distasteful, given Roman’s seeming disability. The disjointed storyline ultimately comes across as somewhat bizarre, for how this character makes such a serious lapse in judgment when his entire identity is derived from a lifetime of opposite behavior is never justified. I was left feeling baffled as to why this film was made and what the takeaway is supposed to be.