‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Stars Denzel Washington As An Eccentric Attorney Who Sells Out

Roman J. Israel, Esq. stars Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, an irascible criminal defense lawyer with wild hair and a gap-toothed smile, who wears natty suits to work, only eats peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and never leaves home without his iPod classic™ full of soul hits. He’s the brains behind a downtown LA law practice, a savant who can remember details of cases from seven years ago and knows the California criminal code by heart, but never goes to court. He’s not a people person, you see. Can’t cut deals, can’t let things go when he knows he’s right.

Sound familiar? Israel is a “type,” or more accurately, an amalgamation of types — Baby from Baby Driver meets the accountant from The Accountant meets a modern-day social justice Atticus Finch. Hell, I’d watch that movie. It sounds like a perfect schlock formula. Schlock goes great with courtroom dramas because courts are simple morality plays by design, the jury the ultimate focus group. Sadly, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not that movie.

In the first scene, Roman learns that his law partner — the courtroom specialist, his face guy — has had a heart attack. His absence throws Roman’s rigidly scheduled, peanut butter-and-honey world into flux. He tries going to court for a few of their cases (even though he’s been told to simply file continuances) and it doesn’t go well. He unsurprisingly gets held in contempt of court on the grounds of being a savant who could probably be placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum. “I’m out of order? You’re out of order! This whole toothpick box full of 372 toothpicks is 44.7% out of order!”

Roman finds out his firm is going to be dissolved, its cases to be absorbed by George Pierce, a three-piece slickster played by Colin Farrell, his blow-dried hair lacquered into place. Pierce sold out a long time ago, assuming he ever even bought in. Pierce tries to bring Roman on board, even though Roman is a prickly peg in a slick hole. Out of place, Roman insults the partner and loudly questions everyone’s integrity, all while looking kind of weird and homeless. He can’t seem to “get with the program,” so to speak, even though Pierce’s firm, oily and unctuous though it may be, is just what he needs — a temporary sponsor, a gig that will give him the time to file the massive brief he’s been working on for the past seven years, a federal challenge that could transform the criminal justice as we know it.

Is this an obvious contrivance? Absolutely, but it’s the kind of contrivance tailor-made for Denzel Washington playing an autistic attorney. No one grandstands better than Denzel Washington, and when he pleads his case to Farrell in front of the office (“How can you have justice when 95% of cases plead out? Not speaking out is ordinary”), I got goosebumps.

Once again, though, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not that movie. Just when you think it’s going to become Roman J. Israel against the system, it becomes Roman J. Israel against himself (which, to be fair, maybe we should’ve picked up on from the scene before the opening credits, in which Roman is typing out a petition against himself). It doesn’t seem like the most crowd-pleasing narrative choice. Who is Roman J. Israel? Do we really even care about him as anything but a symbol? But it is an unexpected one. Unexpected choices are nice.

Fighting for civil rights has taken its toll on Roman J. Israel, which he lays out eloquently in a tearful speech to Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an activist who runs a civil rights non-profit. He’s been fighting the good fight for 40 years with nothing to show for it. As Ben Stiller’s character put it in the otherwise not super-good Brad’s Status, “if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to charity. No one cares. I should’ve gotten rich, retired early, and become a philanthropist, the kind of guy I run around begging for checks from.” (You know… something to that effect).

Hasn’t Roman J. Israel done enough for the cause to justify a little greed, a little something for himself? Once again, I would’ve loved to see movie that explores that conflict, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not that movie. Or at least, it’s a flawed attempt at that movie. The film, from writer/director Dan Gilroy, previously of the wildly underrated Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Nightcrawler, seems to want to be about that conflict between fighting for what’s right and getting your piece, a story that highlights the personal cost of societal progress.

While the film does a solid job depicting the cost of integrity, it never really shows us the costs of selling out. Mostly we see Roman J. Israel finally get a decent apartment, a nice haircut, and a maple turkey bacon-glazed donut (success and selling out are cleverly ensconced in gentrification here) without showing many of downsides. Roman starts to have a breakdown while the selling out… well, mostly still looks pretty good.

And thus, the central conflict of the movie is trapped inside its protagonist’s head. An internal conflict can’t be so internal that we don’t understand both sides. So it comes out feeling less like a true conflict than the film’s themes eating themselves. First, it’s about one thing, then it’s about another, and another and another until ultimately it’s about nothing.

In the end, the film is a bit of a headscratcher. Promising, but not misguided or poorly conceived, just badly planned. It feels like the narrative equivalent of when you’re making a sign and you start drawing the first few letters really big but then realize you’re going to run out of room and the last few letters all get smooshed together. It’s disappointing, because Roman J. Israel, Esq had the makings of something great.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.