When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I knew I wanted to see it. There was something refreshing about it, something different. I actively seek movies with Denzel because I enjoy watching him on screen, I trust his judgment in action. And though he gives a great performance in this film, it doesn’t absolve the story of its other sins (of which there are many). My expectations were high and soon dismissed.
Let’s start with the good,
The movie has a great plot: Roman, the behind-the-scenes half of a two-person legal team is pushed to the client-facing side of law after his partner suffers a fatal heart attack. We soon learn that Roman is also a gifted savant with an eidetic memory which allows him to recall decisions and codes of law on the spot. He leads a solitary life and dedicates most of his time on civil rights litigation. Further, he has absolutely zero tolerance for people and their individual attitudes. What we have is a main character with a severe handicap and a plot that rips the floor directly from his feet. Excellent.
I later learned (through Google research) that Denzel’s character, Roman, falls on the higher functioning side of the autism spectrum. This certainly explains his solitude and social awkwardness around people. Of this, I thought his performance was very kind. He wasn’t at all offensive and the role didn’t fall into stereotypes. I loved that he was able to take the character and make him human and individual without handicapping his own handicap. It felt natural. Roman enjoys peanut butter and honey sandwiches and listening to music on his iPod. When he gets nervous or embarrassed, he stammers and rubs his eye from an invisible lash. It’s almost heartbreaking to see him experiencing any sort of fear, sadness or anxiety because his condition makes you want to protect him.
I really enjoyed Colin Farrell as George, the morally corrupt corporate lawyer, as well.
The 70s vibe, afro, and music were all well done. Bonus points for using “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye, a personal favorite.
The missteps (where do I begin?):
One of the main components of storytelling is introducing and dealing with conflict. The story begins with status quo, the characters living life as they normally would, no complications. Then enters the conflict that uproots their status quo. They are pushed to do something (or not do something), but a change must occur to get the character back to the same or a new status quo. This is the character arc – how they develop and change during the course of the story. When done well you’re left with a fully satisfying story (and usually few questions as to the who, what, when, where and how). In the case of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (pun intended 😊), you have such a huge character shift with no proceeding or following explanation.
Roman changes overnight. He goes from a quiet, 70s inspired homebody spending his free time working on a class action lawsuit to a corrupt, money spending, luxury apartment buying, fancy restaurant attending hypocrite. He loses his ideals in a matter of frames. Though he may have had [slight] reasons, it was still a dramatic stretch.
George’s shift was even more unexpected and unexplained. He begins as the money driven, using-law-as-a-status-symbol antagonist and ends as an activist for disadvantaged cases. You can say he and Roman reversed roles. Unlike Roman, George’s reasons for changing were nil. He completely abandoned the character he was described to be in the beginning of the film.
George was all bark and no bite. His threats were idle. Even after Roman opened the firm to a potential malpractice suit, George failed to issue punishment. His behavior was financially and ethically irresponsible. Further, his reasoning for doing so was incredibly weak.
The movie missed several opportunities to develop its main conflict, which was only introduced in the second half of the movie’s run-time. The plot shown in the trailer is covered in only ONE SCENE in the movie. After a certain point in the movie everything feels rushed and overlooked…all the way to the ending. Sorry, folks, the ending is underwhelming too.
What happened to Langston Bailey? He was the first client Roman meets to discuss his case but no final decisions are made. In fact, you never hear of him again. I distinctly remember seeing his name in the synopsis of the movie on a VOD listing (I can’t find it now), but he has no real role in the movie. Furthermore, Jessie Salinas, who was identified as the second in command at George’s law firm, wasn’t really used either. He floats through certain scenes. (Also, his accented “Israel” comment to Roman was weird and unnecessary).
Was Maya’s role necessary as the “love interest”? This story line doesn’t really go anywhere.
The opening notes reveal Roman and his partner have been working together for 26 years, but in conversation later in the movie Roman recalls it as 36 years – an unlikely mistake for his character.
The verdict: It’s a no from me.