ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Review: 6 out of 10 (No Defense for Plot)
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a new courtroom drama written and directed by Dan Gilroy. The film stars Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and Carmen Ejogo. Washington stars as Roman--a sort of legal savant of sorts--who works in a small firm with a partner. Roman does all the legal heavy lifting and has the California Penal Code set to memory. He has past involvement in civil rights, but due to his lack of social skills, dress, and odd mannerisms he keeps to himself. When his partner suffers a heart attack, Roman must step out from his comfort zone and consider working for George Pierce (Farrell) who works at a large and successful criminal defense firm. Pierce wants to leverage Roman's legal genius but is frustrated by his crusading and unsettling personal quirks. Washington is absolutely riveting in this role as the strangely brilliant Roman J. Israel, Esq. and all that package entails. Though the film never says so, it seems implied that Roman is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Washington offsets some of the unusual habits with fiery speeches about the oppressed and the state of the legal system. It is a fascinating watch.
Until it isn't.
Without saying anything more, the film offers a legal thriller that seems to be headed down a compelling track until it derails completely about two thirds of the way through. With a character and a performance that the audience is so invested in, the script then asks this character to begin to make decisions and act in a way that doesn't fit at all with what we have come to know. Further, the film's entire narrative is in a three week window, although watching the events take place it feels as if it must have been (and narratively speaking likely *should* have been) more like six months at least. So the odd shift makes even less sense when one takes into account that it happens so quickly in the course of the story. This is a film that was screened at the Toronto Film Festival back in September, then summarily recut afterward by director Gilroy who removed an entire subplot and reorganized some plot points in the timeline of the film. One can only wonder, having not seen that original cut, that this edit job was an attempt to soften what is already a strange sort of conceit embedded within the plot.
So, on the one hand you have one of Denzel Washington's most compelling performances of his career--brutally hampered by a sort of screenplay face slap. Farrell's slick LA lawyer who has lost his heart of gold is an interesting foil for the crusading brilliant schlub in Roman who dresses in beat up three piece suits and eats peanut butter sandwiches standing up. ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. offers a promise to the audience, then breaks it. There are some brilliant watchable moments, and no doubt several lawyers will appreciate the film's portrayal of the justice system. But for many it will be a fantastic performance cut down by a nonsensical direction of the story. Too bad, since there is nothing more this reviewer wanted than to see all of these characters in a better film.