Overview: An LA-based criminal defense lawyer fights the system after his small firm disbands. 2017; Rated R; Columbia Pictures; 129 minutes.
What Do You Stand For?: What do you do when an opportunity presents itself? Do you go for it, or shy away? It depends on the type of person you are. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the type of person who gets an opportunity and sees it as a chance to fulfill his calling. What’s Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s calling? To find the answer to that, you’d have to track down and ask Dan Gilroy, the writer and director of Roman J. Israel, Esq. Watching the movie sure didn’t give us any clear idea.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney, but his role is more of the trainer to a world-class boxer. His partner of over three decades is the one who makes the public appearances and fights in court, while Roman J. Israel, Esq. stays out of view, advising on strategy, copiously keeping the tiny firm’s records and memos. It’s a role that suits him well, for Roman J. Israel, Esq. isn’t a very socially comfortable fellow. He lumbers around, swimming in ill-fitting suits, his unkempt, puffy afro sticking out over the old foam headphones covering his ears, headphones that are constantly playing jazz from an iPod, loaded ostensibly with music that mirrors the vast vinyl connection littering the shelves in the cramped, outdated apartment he’s lived in for most of his adult life. It’s modern day, but he still has a flip phone. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a savant—where Raymond Babbitt could count the number of toothpicks on the ground in an instant, Roman J. Israel, Esq. knows the California legal statutes by heart.
This doesn’t sound like the type of role that we’re used to seeing Denzel Washington portray, and it’s not. That’s one of the movie’s positives. This is in many ways the opposite of the many confident, brash men that we’ve become used to Washington inhabiting. Here is a meek, well-meaning but in many ways sad character. While we get to know the character Roman J. Israel, Esq, and all his quirks throughout the movie’s many detours, there’s no doubt that there’s potential here for an interesting person to follow and watch Washington become. The problem is that while seeing Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s separate interactions can be at times interesting, fun, and sad, what it all adds up to in the end is the unfortunate combination of confusing and boring.
Fight the power?: When Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s partner falls ill, a chance opens up for him to step into the spotlight. Instead, in comes George Pierce (Colin Farrell, barely above the energy level of a hungover table read), a fancy, high-powered attorney who has a history with Roman’s partner, to shuffle the existing clientele over to his major firm and shutter the small operation. In time, George takes Roman J. Israel, Esq. on to his firm, essentially as a favor. In his short period as a free agent, Roman J. Israel, Esq. looks for a job at a social justice activist organization, hoping to return to his roots and lend his expertise to teach young protesters their rights. The leader of the group is Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who inexplicably shows a continued personal interest in Roman J. Israel, Esq. which the less said about, the better.
Social justice seems like it’s what drives Roman J. Israel, Esq., what he cares about the most—he has a photo of Bayard Rustin on his wall that the camera cuts to a few times to remind us. Roman J. Israel, Esq. also carries around a large, overstuffed briefcase which he says holds the framework of a landmark federal case he wants to bring that will fundamentally change how people can plea and be sentenced (I think?). But it’s how the film handles the world of social justice issues, clunkily at best, that’s one of its chief weaknesses. We don’t get any sense as to what has led Roman J. Israel, Esq. to spend so much time crafting this apparently game-changing brief, after a lifetime dedicated to helping the underserved. The clients we see him with are all young men of color, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. tries to fight against a system that is designed to lock people like them up for as long as possible. But Gilroy doesn’t let any of Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s individual cases—even the key one that (sort of) ties the film’s meandering narrative together—challenge the character, or ask us to reconsider our views in any way. Perhaps worse off, the movie barely even takes the easy road of reaffirming a pro-social justice point of view. Instead, issues of mass incarceration, police brutality and racism sort of just hover over the proceedings. The film takes a casual, outsider’s view of social justice issues and uses them as a backdrop to a story about—well, what, exactly, I’m not sure. I suppose Roman J. Israel, Esq. is character study, a tale of a man who finds himself overwhelmed by new circumstance and has to decide where to change or stay true to himself. But after following the many stilted subplots and wayward narrative of the film, it becomes clear that Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an idea of a character in search of a story.
Judgment and penance: Every film should be judged solely on its merits, and Roman J Israel, Esq. consistently fails to deliver as either entertaining popcorn or convincing message drama. (If you’re wondering why I’ve referred to the titular character throughout by his full name and professional title, I apologize—I think I’m doing it as a sort of penance.) But there’s such talent on paper here that you can’t help but wonder what could have been. When cinematographer Robert Elswit’s name comes up during the credits, you’re baffled as to why this director-photographer combination couldn’t find the fascinating noir-tinged corners of Los Angeles the way 2014’s Nightcrawler did. Where that film had an unmistakable sense of place, the city here is presented as completely nondescript.
Denzel Washington is always worth our attention. This isn’t near the top of his best performances, and while the film is a big disappointment, Washington is still engaging and energetic. He exhibits impressive physical technique, and at the end you hope to see Washington take on other similarly unique and offbeat roles. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Roman J. Israel, Esq. I just don’t want to see him in anything resembling the mess that is Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Overall: Boasting an impressive roster in front of and behind the camera, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a disappointing, meandering character study that shies away from investigating the social justice issues its character purports to care deeply about.