A rare Denzel Washington film that failed to connect with audiences, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the star’s lowest grossing film since Mississippi Masala back in 1992. Budgeted at $22 million, the 2017 legal drama grossed just $11.9 million in the US and a little over $13 million globally. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), the film is a well composed piece on a technical level, but it’s an oddly structured beast which doesn’t quite know what it wants to be story-wise.
Washington is the titular Roman J. Israel, a brilliant lawyer somewhere on the autistic spectrum who finds his life unanchored when his partner suddenly dies. He’s given hope of survival by Colin Farrell’s swish high-end attorney but their very different styles lead to problems in the work place. Israel’s quirky style and unorthodox methods might not be perfect but he’s swayed by the money which Farrell’s firm holds. This leads to a crisis of faith and a subplot which swings the film into thriller territory late in the game.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is built around Denzel Washington’s performance and he rises to the challenge to deliver a character full of ticks and quirks and you can see why he was Oscar nominated for his work (note: in the words of Tropic Thunder, he never goes ‘full retard’). However, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, the best performance in the film belongs to Colin Farrell. Farrell has the far-less flashy role (although he does have good suits) but he builds his character in layers. He could very easily be a generic shark in a suit and the villain of the piece, but he’s much more than that. It’s an impressive piece of work, which is overshadowed by Washington’s showboat-y central role.
As a writer, Dan Gilroy has constructed his film around a character and because of this Roman J. Israel, Esq. has no narrative drive. The film doesn’t know where it’s going and it brings in a subplot about Israel turning in a criminal for reward money far too late in the game to deliver any real tension. It’s not a bad film, but the material doesn’t quite match the performances given by Washington and Farrell. It’s a shame, because this had the elements to be a great legal drama, a piece similar to what Dan Gilroy’s brother Tony delivered with Michael Clayton. It’s easy to see why this failed to get real traction in the awards race and perhaps this was never really going to fly high with audiences because of its ridiculous title.