‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Review

Sloppy characterizations mar intriguing story about a burnt-out lawyer

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

There are few things in a film that are more annoying than inconsistent characterization. When a writer/director takes a shortcut by making bit players do whatever is needed to further the plot rather than letting them react naturally to the story as it evolves around them, one can easily become vexed. Consider the behavior of George Pierce (Colin Farrell) in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Pierce shows up at Roman J. Israel's (Denzel Washington) law office after Israel's partner is unexpectedly sidelined by a heart attack and induced coma. Israel was the brains of the operation, a law firm dedicated to helping out the underprivileged facing overwhelming odds and a prosecutorial system designed to crush hope. His partner was the courtside mouth and face. But, as we watch the borderline-autistic Israel backtalk judges and fail to make deals with prosecutors, we realize the brains can't really do what the mouth excelled at. So the firm needs to be liquidated and Pierce was the man chosen to be liquidator.

Pierce appears at first to be a shark—the camera lingers on his sharply cut suits, a stark contrast to Israel's boxy jackets and pants pooled up at his ankles—who circles the waters while telling Israel he's not going to get a severance package. Moments later Pierce is offering Israel a ride in his fabulously expensive German auto, informing him that the idealistic practice he dedicated his life to was tossing Pierce kickbacks for throwing cases their way. And then we see him angling to procure Israel a job, confident that this is a man whose talents he can exploit for profit.

Fine, okay, Pierce is an amoral scumbag. And then he starts to change, to grow a heart, to suggest that Israel is right to fight against a system that ends up with most of the accused taking plea bargains because prosecutorial overcharging is so onerous that the risk of losing outweighs the reward of getting your day in court. Here's a man who is growing, inspired by Israel, ready to recommit to his principles.

And then he flips right back to being a shark, threatening to fire Israel if he keeps bothering employees, practically shackling him to a desk after he messes up a case. When Israel himself loses faith—in the system, in himself—Pierce miraculously flips again, creating a pro bono wing at his mega-firm and putting Israel in charge of it. As the movie draws to a close, Pierce is reborn, a believer in the power of liberal lawyers to change the system and ensure everyone's rights.

I mean, I guess. But Pierce's character development—and, really, the whole point of the movie is showing the ways in which Israel inspires and influences those around him; it's about the importance of principles and the damage done to society when ideals and dreams are replaced by pragmatism and profits—isn't really an arc so much as a scribble, a curlicue on a sheet of paper defined not by growth but by randomness.

It's too bad, since Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an entertaining-enough flick from moment to moment. Washington is outstanding as Israel, as one might expect; there's a sense of compassion inherent to his performance that keeps it from devolving into outright parody. Farrell is good in a role that never quite works or makes sense. The world Israel inhabits—he's a longtime tenant in a gentrifying section of Los Angeles—feels real and lived-in, still a little scary, but nothing a longtime resident can't handle.

If only we could believe the inspiration Roman instills in those surrounding him.