I’m sure someone in Hollywood thought that Roman J. Israel, Esq. would be Oscar bait for the winter film season especially with Denzel Washington attached, but sadly the film loses its own plot about halfway through along with its awards chances. Progressive Lawyer Roman J. Israel(Washington) has fought the good fight in a small law firm in Los Angeles for decades. Focused on changing the justice system, he gave up a family and a normal life, but when his business partner dies from a heart attack, he discovers that there is no money in progressive lawyering. Suffering from financial woes, he is forced to choose between his morals or selling out for a piece of the pie he has avoided for years.
It’s hard to tell what this film is trying to be because the first half is selling a much different movie than what the second half becomes. Israel’s present himself somewhat of a socially awkward savant, but has a vast knowledge of the legal system he uses to fight systemic racism and the prison industrial complex. His noble fight to help poor people fight overcharging and sentencing show he wants to do the right thing but he is not living much better than the people he represents. Roman is set up as a very complex character, but about halfway in, he abandons all legal wit and morals for a quick payout which turns out to be his downfall.
Denzel Washington is outstanding but that really goes without saying. The problem is the writing from Dan Gilroy, who tried to paste together a film with two central plots; Ethics and Activism. However, he doesn’t do enough to sell either point and the movie suffers from it. We need to see more of Roman’s activist past outside of him staring at the same picture 5 times and why would he throw away his ethical standing because of money when he has always been near the bottom of the pits for the years, to begin with?
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film that works with Denzel Washington’s acting and suffers with Dan Gilroy’s screenwriting.