Can we all just take a second and appreciate how stupid of a title Roman J. Israel, Esq. is? I mean, we can usually tolerate one bit of punctuation in our titles—a comma here or a question mark there—but three bits of punctuation in one movie title just because it’s the way that the protagonist refers to himself? It’s too much, movie. I mean, I guess you couldn’t call it “The Lawyer” (or could you?), but it’s a lazy, awful title and I will not stand for it! I’ll sit for it, just like any movie. But, like, an angry sit.
So, the movie is about an idealistic lawyer, Roman J. Israel (Esq.), played by Denzel Washington, who isn’t very good with people but is very good with the law. That’s worked out well so far, since he’s been partnered with someone who is good with people and would go to court using the lawyer-y stuff Roman did. But his partner had a heart attack, so now Roman’s on his own. And also his firm is being shut down. so, he’s now minus one partner and one job.
It’s a largely dull movie with an electric central performance the movie can’t fully use.
He winds up dealing with things that test his idealism and morals, working cases that challenge him, and meeting with people who might not be the best people. All of this, on paper, sounds like it could be intriguing. In practice, it’s pretty dull. Nothing particularly entertaining happens, the film lacks an energy that’s needed for activism to be even remotely effective, and our protagonist, with his self-important title and all, is pretty boring when you get down to brass tacks of it all.
This is especially disappointing given that it’s the second film from director Dan Gilroy, following up the excellent Nightcrawler. That movie is a kinetic thrill, gave us interesting characters, and explored a deeper, darker aspect of its subject matter. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is mostly just surface-level stuff, very little of which is particularly compelling.
Its best aspect is the performance given by Denzel Washington. Washington is great here, crafting a rich character that the movie doesn’t know what to do with and doesn’t give him enough to do. Every moment watching him showcases great acting. He becomes this man; he’s not just giving us an imitation of who he might be. None of the other characters or actors leave much of an impression on us; Washington does, and if the movie surrounding him was better, he’d probably get award consideration. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is too mediocre for that, but at least one good thing came out of it.
I wish there were more to say about Roman J. Israel, Esq. but there isn’t a whole lot. It’s a largely dull movie with an electric central performance the movie can’t fully use. The story’s not all that interesting, the characters are either pretty dull or don’t get enough to do, and there isn’t enough to the movie to intrigue or challenge our intellect. Denzel Washington is great; the rest of the movie is mediocre. It’s a disappointing sophomore outing for director Dan Gilroy. It’s not incompetent or bad, but it isn’t worth watching.
Conclusion: Roman J. Israel, Esq. has a stupid title and the movie isn’t all that good, either.
Recommendation: Only watch it if you’re a big Denzel Washington fan.