Oh, how I want to love Roman J. Israel, Esq. On paper it has many of the same qualities that made Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler such a thrilling takedown of our predatory media culture. It has Denzel Washington giving yet another remarkably persuasive performance in his historic career, and Gilroy seems to be delivering a chin check to the imbalances in our legal system that favor the wealthy but herd the less-fortunate through the process like cattle. But whatever it is Gilroy is trying to say gets muddled in a story that is at once bizarre and strangely passive.
That Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a passive, restrained film is strange because there are so many potentially combustible elements. Denzel, in what may be the performance that sees him go furthest out on a limb, plays the title character, a former 1960s radical who has worked the last 30 years as the behind-the-scenes man in a small law firm. With his wild unkempt afro, dorky glasses, ancient suits, strange mannerisms, and encyclopedic legal knowledge, Roman is best suited to leaving the actual trying of cases to his partner, William Henry Jackson. True to their pasts as activists, the firm takes on clients that may get chewed up by the system, but they also aren’t the most financially stable. When William suddenly has a heart attack, Roman steps up represents their clients in court. But he’s still too much of a firebrand to play the game, and the actvist movement has passed him by, leaving Roman at a crossroads.
Colin Farrell steps into the picture as the unintentionally-mysterious George, who arrives to help close out the firm when it’s revealed that it has been losing money for years. A former student of William’s and now a high-powered attorney at a major firm, George sees the law as a volume business. Get the clients in using slick terminology and grandiose promises, and then keep it movin’. After struggling to find a job on his own, Roman reluctantly agrees to work at George’s firm, even though it goes against everything he stands for.
What Gilroy lays out is a classic morality tale with a central question: Will Roman be able to maintain his ideals working within a system he has always fought against? That’s an interesting story to tell but Gilroy veers off in a different direction that feels manufactured and less fully-developed. When an unexpected windfall comes his way, one that places him in a very dangerous position, Roman gets a taste of the high life for the first time. Moreover, he begins to have a change in attitude unrecognizable to the people who know him best…
“I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful”, he says to Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an attorney for a non-profit advocacy group and one of Roman’s admirers. This sudden shift in personality might have worked if Gilroy bothered to explore it all the way through, but he’s never committed to following through on much of anything. Even the small stuff skirts by without examination. In an early scene, Roman declares that he will “find out” why William left everything to George, who at that point was a complete stranger. That thread is never followed up on, nor do we ever truly understand why George puts up with Roman’s frequent acts of defiance. Other than the pictures hanging on his wall we don’t find out much about Roman’s activist past, which might have helped explain his mercurial behavior. He carries with him a massive leatherbound case, containing the framework for a legal brief that could change the entire system for generations. Gilroy introduces this potentially intriguing detail, and even has Roman pay lip service to it a time or two, but there’s nothing at all that develops from it.
While Gilroy is never fully committed, he’s fortunate that Denzel is always on top of his game. I’ve always said that no matter what the movie no matter the role Denzel is always the coolest the guy in every shot. That streak ends here, and it’s absolutely amazing to see him go so far outside himself to play such a special character. Roman’s awkwardness is often funny but Denzel is smart enough never to play it up as comedy, and it leads to some truly powerful moments that come when you least expect them. During one scene, Roman’s desperation and anguish during a failed job interview slowly begins to shatter his confident façade, with Denzel delivering some of the most heartbreaking work he’s ever done. Farrell and Ejogo are good, as well, but I felt like something was missing from their characters that should have been included. Perhaps they were part of the footage apparently trimmed from the cut scene in Toronto just a couple of months ago. George is particularly baffling; he’s always coming to the rescue or letting Roman off the hook, but his motivations are never made clear.
The film never comes together as it should, sad because Gilroy is better than this. But he seems to be pulling his punches everywhere, and the ones the does throw simply don’t connect. Despite Denzel giving it his best shot, Roman J. Israel, Esq. never passes the bar.