Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Score: C+

Director: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rated: PG-13

By now, we all know that Denzel Washington can do anything. There’s a reason there’s a podcast Denzel Washington Is the Best Actor in the World Period. But even giving it his all, he can’t rescue the muddled, perplexing Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Washington plays the titular character: a shabbily dressed but brilliant lawyer. He’s prickly but cares deeply for his clients, most of whom couldn’t afford a pricier attorney. When the head of the tiny firm he works at suffers a heart attack, it throws his entire life into a downward spiral. He’s forced to reckon with the life of service that has kept him at the same apartment, on the same fixed income, with the same bulky iPod for years.

But the film never quite figures out where it wants to go. It tries to be a morality play, a character study, an indictment of the unjust legal system and occasionally a thriller, a romance and a drama about mental illness (I think). It’s frequently confused and therefore doesn’t work, even with a great performance at the center.

Part of the problem is the condensed timeframe. The audience is supposed to buy that Roman loses his job, accepts one at a shady firm, loses his moral compass, finds it, and inspires several others in the span of just three weeks. Even though Roman as a character is impressive, that’s just too much disbelief to suspend.

Dan Gilroy’s last movie was the unrepentantly nasty and cynical Nightcrawler, which earned him an Oscar nomination. It’s still one of the darkest mainstream movies of recent times. That movie, even if it wasn’t as advertised, knew exactly what it was, for better or worse. (I thought it was great.) Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. never knows what it is.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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