Roman J. Israel, Esq., rated PG-13
Denzel Washington’s latest film is a flawed film that focuses on the main character’s values and moral failure.
The film, featuring a strong cast, is written and directed by Oscar nominee Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler). Cinematography is by Oscar winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). After the film’s premiere at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, 13 minutes were cut from the film and a key scene was moved up earlier in the film.
The film is set in downtown Los Angeles, which is where Roman J. Israel lives and works; he is played by Washington, seven-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (Training Day, Glory). His appearance is stunning; he wears outdated clothes, outdated glasses and an outdated hairstyle. He has a gap between his two front teeth, carries a heavy briefcase and always has a pair of headphones on to listen to his iPod. The ringtone on his flip-phone is Eddie Hendricks’ 1973 hit “Keep on Truckin’”. The man is definitely stuck in the 70’s.
Roman is a lawyer in a two-man criminal defense law firm that handles cases for the downtrodden and underprivileged. The firm has never made much money and is in debt. Roman lives in a modest apartment and often eats peanut butter. The owner of the firm, William Jackson, is the public face of the firm. He argues the cases in court and meets with clients, while Roman does the behind the scenes work (research, etc.). Roman may be a savant or has Asperger’s Syndrome. He has remarkable legal knowledge, but is very uncomfortable socially.
***SPOILER ALERT ***
When Jackson has a heart attack, the Jackson family decides to let Roman go. They hire George Pierce, a rich corporate defense attorney played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell (In Bruges) to close the firm down. Eventually Pierce in turn hires Roman at his firm. Roman, who believes in fighting for the underprivileged and has a strong sense of justice, tells George that he is all about the money and not justice.
A key point in the film is a bad decision that Roman makes. The decision was out of character for the principled Roman, and it is not really explained as to why he did what he did, though we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Carmen Ejogo (Selma), plays Maya Alston, a young legal activist, who develops a romantic relationship with Roman. Again, why she is so enamored with the not very likeable Roman is never explained.
Washington delivers his usual strong performance as Roman. Farrell does a good job portraying the arrogant owner of a high-priced law firm. We see him changing, adopting Roman’s values as the film progresses. This is not really explained either, as Roman is seen moving away from those very values.
The film is rated PG-13 for some adult language, including the abuse of God’s and Jesus’ names. Themes in the film include justice, sin, judgement.
Although there are things to like in this film, particularly Washington’s acting performance, there were just too many holes in the script by Gilroy for me to give this film a good recommendation.