“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a movie that reeks of faux quality and self-righteousness. This movie never would have been green-lit if “FROM THE GUY WHO WROTE/DIRECTED ‘NIGHTCRAWLER'” weren’t written in bold, black letters on its front page. “Roman” feels like something a USC senior would craft after chugging a six pack and watching “Michael Clayton” and “Rain Man” back-to-back. It’s an amateur match disguising itself as a prime time, box office bout, with its supposedly hard dramatic punches landing softer than a glove full of feathers.
Denzel Washington plays Roman, a once passionate protester turned curmudgeony laywer. After his partner suffers a heart attack, Roman loses his position at his firm and finds himself working for a fancier law firm heralded by George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell. Roman’s idealism earns him the admiration of Maya Alston, a civil rights activist played by Carmen Ejogo, but Roman’s firm grasp of legal ethics is loosened with some jarring personal and professional decisions.
If that sounds boring to you, believe me, the film is no more entertaining. The person we hope will lighten things up is Roman, presented to us as someone intelligent but quirky, with bizarre habits and mannerisms but occasional flashes of brilliance. “He listens to an old iPod, with even older headphones! What a character!” said some Hollywood douchebag said at some point in a pitch meeting, trying to sell Roman as a viable concept for a film. The problem, though, is that we never get a full, clear explanation of whether Roman is a person with some sort of mental disability like an autistic savant or if he is just a smart, non-disabled person who chooses to be an asshole.
The movie takes advantage of this lack of clarity on more than one occasion, making Roman more social and adjusted when it sees fit, or painting him as a moronic stooge who couldn’t hold a conversation if his life depended on it. This makes it impossible for us to relate to Roman as a character. We don’t know if we’re allowed to dislike him, as that would be rude to him if he does have some sort of mental disability. It’s the cinematic equivalent of witnessing someone that’s perfectly healthy park in a handicap spot. You’re pretty damn sure they aren’t handicapped, but frustratingly, you can’t say anything about it to them since they have the proper placard. This disabled double-dipping eradicates the emotional impact that Roman’s decisions have on the audience, and in turn, makes Gilroy’s movie have no impact whatsoever.
Script and character issues aside, the film is overlong and is poorly directed. You get a full understanding that this is not going to be something cohesive pleasing the first 10 minutes in. It feels like it’s supposed to have taken place a few years ago, but uses a very current-day landscape of Los Angeles. Shots seem scattered and randomly constructed, like Gilroy and crew were playing a cinematic game of spin the bottle, and wherever it landed that’s where they would place the camera. These flaws, however, are relatively minor in comparison to its hefty story wounds. “Roman” the movie and the lawyer are not smart nor insightful, their constant rambling speeches a revealing sign that have nothing important to say at all.