“ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.”
If “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is remembered for anything, it will be for the chance it gives Denzel Washington to do a pure character role. Here he’s nerdy and socially maladroit and has weird hair, and for the first 10 minutes, you might assume the movie is set in the 1990s or even the ’70s: He wears huge glasses, his ties are fat and his lapels are enormous.
But no, this is a modern-day story about a man out of his time, a lawyer who had his formative experiences in the 1970s and has never really changed. It’s interesting to see Washington play someone out of touch and unaware; someone who doesn’t know how he’s going over; someone, essentially, without charm. That is, it’s interesting … without being entirely satisfying.
Washington’s charm is half his arsenal. “Roman J. Israel” may prove that he can play a role with one hand tied behind his back, but we like that hand. So having proved his point, he doesn’t really need to do this again.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, whose directorial debut was the brilliant “Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel” is presented, from its first moments, as the story of a good and valuable lawyer’s slide into moral compromise. Interestingly, the scenario is like a mirror image of “Michael Clayton,” about a compromised lawyer’s path to redemption, which was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy’s brother.
In such a movie, whether it depicts the journey from compromise to virtue or from virtue to compromise, we have to believe in the character’s specialness and moral importance; otherwise, who cares? And why bother making the movie? Unfortunately, it is precisely this part of the equation that “Roman J. Israel” fails to get right.
Roman starts the movie as the silent partner in two-man law firm specializing in human rights cases. His partner litigates, and Roman sits at a desk, doing the paperwork and figuring out the legal angles. But two minutes into the film, his partner has a debilitating heart attack, and Roman is left with the full caseload. He also finds himself out of a job, because he owns no interest in the law firm.
The movie has an investment in the audience’s believing that Roman is some kind of great guy. But what happens? In every single legal maneuver, Roman screws up. In every single contact with another person, Roman annoys and alienates. Watching “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is like watching a very long episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” only without the laughs, and without a lead character who even knows that he’s annoying. Roman has no self-awareness at all, just anguish that he can’t connect.
Actually, he does make one contact, with a social justice lawyer, Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo. Maya is an important role, because she is the only person who sees Roman’s hidden virtues, but as written, Maya’s admiration is mixed with pity. Still, the sympathy and intensity of Ejogo’s gaze is almost enough to move the audience toward Maya’s point of view.
Like Maya, we would like Roman to be great, if only because it would make for a better movie. But Roman is bad at doing good, so when he starts showing promise in the other moral direction, it hardly seems like a tragedy. It seems like a smart career movie. Plus, he gets to wear decent suits and finally starts looking like Denzel Washington.