Movie Review: Even Denzel Washington Can't Make a Case for Legal Drama 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Movie Review: Even Denzel Washington Can't Make a Case for Legal Drama 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'


Over the past 40 years, Denzel Washington has played so many attorneys (at least five by my count), he could probably pass the bar. He's argued cases in modern classics (Philadelphia), in ho-hum paycheck projects (The Pelican Brief) and in films so disposable I'd wager nobody reading this can recall them (Heart Condition, Ricochet ... anyone?). In all that time, however, Washington has never lawyered up in a picture as ill-conceived, poorly executed and just plain wacko as this one.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who made his behind-the-camera debut with 2014's Nightcrawler. It's doubtful anyone who saw that transfixing thriller imagined his follow-up would prove a spectacular train wreck, but no other verdict is possible. Even after extensive tweaks, edits and cuts following its tepid reception at the Toronto International Film Festival, the picture ranks among the year's most confounding and flawed. The version now playing at theaters is 12 minutes shorter than the one that premiered in September. Which leaves it roughly two hours and nine minutes too long.

Washington plays the title character, a lawyer with that variety of autism that imbues an individual with savant-like superpowers — shamefully, the only part of the spectrum Hollywood appears interested in portraying. Roman — who, of course, knows the entire California legal code by heart — finds himself unemployed after his boss has a heart attack and dies.

The character is an improbable collection of tics and traits. He dresses and speaks like a 1970s civil rights activist, addressing women as "sister" and pontificating at the drop of a dashiki on proper protest etiquette. His quirks also include the nerdiest specs since Napoleon Dynamite, a compulsion to blurt out whatever he's thinking (he doesn't think much of slick lawyers), and a fondness for pro bono work and peanut butter sandwiches.

Colin Farrell costars as George Pierce, precisely the sort of lawyer Roman looks down on. Those tweaks, edits and cuts leave his character with an arc that's beyond baffling. One moment, Roman is looking down on George; the next, he's inexplicably working for him. Mere minutes separate the scenes in which George berates his new lackey to within an inch of his life and then takes him to a Lakers game to confess he yearns to be like him.

Just when you're sure the film couldn't possibly hurtle farther off the rails, the noble idealist commits a ludicrously outlandish breach of ethics, which enables him to buy expensive suits like George's and an oceanfront home. Oh, and he gets a client killed. Did I mention that a babelicious activist (Carmen Ejogo) falls adoringly in love with Roman after he attempts to lecture her staff and gets laughed out of the place? I've had LSD trips that didn't get this weird.

Speaking of weird: In a rambling Christian Post interview Washington gave last month, he counsels millennials against watching too much news or using social media, in addition to declaring that God put Donald Trump in the White House for a reason. It's worth a read. The actor also reveals that he and Gilroy read scripture and prayed together on set every day. Which I mention for a couple of reasons.

First, it may provide insight into some of the nuttier artistic choices Washington and Gilroy made. And, second, I suspect most viewers would agree that time could have been put to better use. Whatever the pair was asking for, it's safe to say those prayers went way unanswered.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Roman J. Israel, Esq."