Denzel Washington is incredible in this movie. That’s the first and biggest takeaway from this movie. Washington is an acting force to be reckoned with and in this movie, he really brought his A game, bringing the title character to life. The problem is, the movie pretty much gives him nothing at all to work with.
Roman J. Israel is a lawyer with poor social skills, but is a brilliant legal mind. He makes up one half of a two man firm where he does a large portion of the research, paperwork, and general behind the scenes aspect while his partner is the one who is front and center, the face of the firm more or less. Roman is thrust into the front and center role for the firm when his partner suffers an unexpected heart attack that puts him in the hospital. Thrust into this new and unexpected roll, Roman is forced to confront information about his firm that comes to light, information that he was not prepared to handle. Then… well other things happen.
Roman finds out that his firm is actually broke, something his partner had been hiding from him, so he begins to look for a job. He bombs a few interviews due to his poor social skills eventually winding up at a big time corporate law firm where we meet George Pierce (Colin Farrell) a lawyer who was responsible for Roman’s law firm in the event that his partner could no longer be in charge. This may or may not conflict with Roman being in charge since he was the only other lawyer working there, but the movie never really bothers to look too deeply into that. It’s also not really clear if Pierce wants Roman to come on board or if he for some reason has to bring him on board. Roman is clearly an odd man out at the big time firm. Everything from his clothing to his interactions with everyone cause him to stick out and not it a good way. Still, Pierce continues to put Roman in charge of several cases. It’s clear that Roman is a brilliant lawyer but his discomfort with social interactions get in the way again and again.
Also, unrelated to Roman’s ongoing issues at the law firm, another storyline pops up in the form of a young woman named Maya (Carmen Ejogo) who didn’t give Roman a job in one of the earlier interviews. Maya however, apparently found Roman interesting enough to ask him to speak at a meeting of activist that she was organizing, as well as continuing to keep in touch with him. It’s not clear if the relationship between Roman and Maya is supposed to be a romantic one though. That doesn’t mean that the movie decided to keep it a mystery or leave it up to the viewer’s interpretation, but instead, the movie can’t seem to make up its mind on their relationship and tries to have it both ways only adding to the confusion.
Deep into the runtime of this movie, we finally get what feels like the actual plot of the movie. Roman, while trying to mount a defense for client learns that his client knows where his accomplice is, and that this information could be a bargaining chip in negotiations. However, again, due to Roman’s poor people skills, a deal is quickly taken off the table, and Roman’s client is killed in prison. Roman, still facing financial troubles, phones in an anonymous tip about the location of the accomplice using the privileged information, in order to collect the reward. This part of the movie actually feels like it could have the makings of an interesting legal thriller. But it’s bogged down by every other random part of the movie.
You have Roman trying to fit in at the new law firm, this maybe/maybe not romance with Maya, there’s a subplot about Roman trying to get Pierce to allow for more noble causes to be a part of the firm’s client list that feels like it’s there just to eat up time. At one point in the movie Roman reveals that his life’s work is a brief he’s been developing for eight years that, according to him, will change the face of the legal system entirely. This comes out of nowhere in the middle of a scene and then disappears without resolution, only to randomly pop up every now and again as a plot point.
What’s frustrating, is that through and the mess and confusion that is this movie, Washington turns in a powerhouse performance as Roman J. Israel. A character that could have been weird or off putting or just flat out cringe inducing, is instead one that Washington makes interesting and compelling. Washington is able to take a bundle of quirks and produce a fully fleshed out character as the end product. As difficult as it is to care about any one aspect of this movie, Roman J. Israel the character still ends up being a fascinating character to watch. It’s just a shame that the movie never pulls itself together enough to give him something interesting to do for very long.
Tags: Denzel Washington, film, movie, review, roman j. israil esq.