For the first time since 1993, Denzel Washington is dusting off his JD Degree and going back to court. Fourteen years after Philadelphia, Washington is back playing an attorney in Roman J. Israel, Esq. I don’t know what the movie is about. Truthfully? I don’t care. I am, however, going to see that movie in theaters the very first day it comes out. I just can’t wait to order the tickets. Imagine how rich and powerful and important you will sound as you approach the ticket booth and say with confidence, “Hello sir, I’m here to see Roman J. Israel, Esquire”. Wow! I may even wear a top hat and possibly an understated cape. If I’m going to shell out fifteen dollars for a movie I want to sound like I can afford to be there.
Roman J. Israel is an impressively intimidating name for an attorney. There’s a fair amount to unpack there. Firstly, there is Roman, which is either referring to the Roman Empire or a Roman candle, indicating that the attorney is either very powerful or highly combustible or some combination of both. There’s the middle J, which could potentially stand for Judge or Justice or Judicial or Jury, all very important legal terms. Finally, there’s the Israel, which translates in Hebrew to “one who triumphs with God”. So you see, as far as attorney names go, you can’t do much better than Roman J. Israel, Esquire. An important sounding name is certainly a bonus for an attorney, though it isn’t a requirement for legal success. It’s useful, but not vital. For instance, Vincent “Vinny” LaGuardia Gambini sounds like the name of a pastrami sandwich you might get at a Planet Hollywood in New Jersey, and he won a murder case.
What I’d like to do now is go through a number of other movie attorney qualities and determine whether or not they are important, even necessary, for courtroom success. Since this is a thing about movie courts, we will act accordingly. I will raise an objection and like any good and fair judge, make a corresponding ruling. Let’s begin.
OBJECTION: My attorney is very ugly. I feel less likely to win my trial with such homely representation.
That’s kind of a rude objection, but I’ll consider it regardless. Let’s run through a quick list of some of cinema’s most famous attorneys. There is Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, who looks like a more handsome superman. There is Paul Newman in The Verdict, who had eyes that could melt an ice-cap. There is Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, who had a smile back then with wattage that could have powered a small city. There is Denzel Washington in Philadelphia which, my God. There is Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich, who has won People Magazine’s World’s Most Beautiful Woman 95 years in a row. There is George Clooney in Michael Clayton, who is George Clooney. We’ve come this far without naming Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Gosling, among many others. You know what, I think the point stands. This objection is SUSTAINED.
OBJECTION: My attorney is not experienced at all. My representation seems way over their heads here! I’d like an attorney with a little more experience.
I understand the point being made. It seems like in a court of law, especially a court hearing a case that usually involves murder or rape or billions of dollars from shady mega-corporations, having a savvy, experienced lawyer would be a major asset. However, I’d ask you to first watch A Few Good Men, My Cousin Vinny, A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker, Erin Brokovich, and Fracture, to name a few. For whatever reason, it’s almost always better to have an attorney that causes at least one other character to remark that he or she “is in way over their head”. This objection is OVERRULED.
OBJECTION: Your Honor? It feels a little ridiculous that I have to even raise this concern, but it appears as though members of my council are dating. This seems problematic. If they are focused on each other, how can they be focused on my case?
I can see why you might think that’s an issue. We are dealing with complex, high-stakes cases in this courtroom. People’s lives are hanging in the balance every day. Though may I ask you to consider this issue from a different angle for a moment? Perhaps it’s actually a good thing that our movie attorneys can’t stop lovingly glancing back at each other after every cross-examination. It’s possible that the love they feel from their fellow attorneys is a stress relief for them. Watch Legally Blonde for me one time. It’s delightful. This objection is OVERRULED.
OBJECTION: You seem like a pretty laid back guy. You look young, relatively speaking at least. You don’t seem angry, ornery, or bewildered. You don’t appear willing to bang your gavel and threaten my lawyer with contempt for his admittedly renegade legal tactics. No offense, but you don’t seem cut out for the role of movie judge.
Wow. You’re absolutely right. I guess I really don’t fit the bill here. A good movie judge either looks like a founding father, a la Judge Omar Noose in A Time to Kill (Judge Noose, very subtle!), or a retired prison warden, like Judge Haller in My Cousin Vinny, or an exasperated high school principal like Judge Marshall in Liar Liar. You see, aside from being old and generally curmudgeonly, a good movie judge needs to be three things, in order, in every movie. Bewildered and then curious and then righteous. I am none of those things. Your objection is SUSTAINED. I recuse myself from this case.