Roman J. Israel, Esq. Wastes a Denzel Washington Performance

Dan Gilroy’s legal drama tries to tackle the American justice system, the death of activism, and a pulpy crime story all at once.

Denzel Washington in the film 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
Denzel Washington in the film Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Sony / Columbia)

The hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. looks like he emerged out of a time tunnel straight from 1979. He wears baggy three-piece suits, sports an afro, and never goes anywhere without his Walkman or its fuzzy orange headphones. A lawyer and an activist, Roman is a man who’s frozen in the past, the personification of a guilty conscience for a more corporate, less moral world. He’s also the star of Dan Gilroy’s new drama, which tries to reckon with how the American justice system has failed the idealism of generations gone by. Except, that is, when the film decides to be about something else entirely.

One element is consistent throughout Roman J. Israel, Esq.—the enigmatic lead, played with typical dedication and forcefulness by Denzel Washington. But even though he’s fully committed to the role, this movie is anything but, aimlessly weaving between story ideas like a distracted driver. Roman’s journey goes in strange directions: He steals a duffel bag filled with money; he locks horns with corporate attorneys; he tries to launch a lawsuit against the pillars of the American court system; he even falls in love. There’s at least a third of Roman J. Israel, Esq. that I loved, and another third I had no patience for whatsoever. Ultimately, it’s a small-scale work that nonetheless falls victim to its dizzying ambition.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems all the more odd given that its writer and director is Gilroy, who made 2014’s Nightcrawler, a propulsive and focused thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a photographer caught up in the dark world of “if it bleeds, it leads” local news. While that film features a fairly original protagonist, Roman J. Israel, Esq. relies on dull stereotypes about people on the autism spectrum: Roman possesses an encyclopedic brain and a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but aside from that, whatever disorder he might have is left unnamed and unexplained. Equally unclear is the reason for the film’s strange narrative structure. It begins in media res with Roman decrying how he betrayed his own values, then cuts back to “three weeks earlier” and goes on to tell an impossibly epic tale.

Roman is an office-bound lawyer who does busywork for his partner, a hero of the civil-rights movement who’s the face of their two-person firm. When that partner has a heart attack and goes into a coma, Roman is adrift. He initially thinks about getting back into public activism, meeting (and developing a close friendship with) a nonprofit organizer named Maya (Carmen Ejogo). But then he ends up working in corporate law, hired by the soulless hotshot George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who wants to take advantage of his computer-brain. And Roman gets into a legal predicament, making a desperate decision that nets him a ton of cash and a whole heap of trouble.

How this could all fit into three weeks is beyond me, but it certainly can’t fit into an otherwise roomy 130 minutes of screen time (and that’s after Gilroy trimmed 12 minutes following the muted response the movie got at the Toronto International Film Festival). Roman J. Israel, Esq. has simultaneously too much story to tell and not enough; unable to pick a lane, it gets bogged down in uninteresting details. To his credit, Washington is working hard, and he somehow manages to make Roman feel like more than a cartoon, despite a screenplay that vastly underserves him.

The movie seems to be on the right track early on, as Roman wanders in search of new employment after decades tucked away in a back office. We get a sense of what this man has sacrificed, and what he’s held onto while things have changed around him. In a job interview at Maya’s nonprofit, Roman starts stammering and crying as he tries to recount his activist history and expresses his confusion at their less aggressive methods of protest. But just as quickly, the film jumps the tracks to an entirely different plotline—the first of many disruptions to the narrative flow.

Anytime the movie returns to Roman’s efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar world, it bursts with energy. When he has to appear in front of a judge for the first time in years (that was his partner’s job), he’s almost immediately held in contempt of court for arguing against the DA’s aggressive use of sentencing maximums to browbeat his young client into a plea bargain that will send him to jail. Roman hates the way the law has evolved to punish young black men in so many pernicious ways, and he’s tried to ignore it over the years by never venturing into a courtroom. There’s genuine poignancy to watching him try, and fail, to find loopholes in the system, despite his obvious intelligence and legal acumen.

But Gilroy clearly decided that a film about good principles struggling in the face of institutionalized racism might lack for gripping drama. That’s why Roman J. Israel, Esq. is laden with side-plots that go nowhere, and characters like Farrell’s who are deeply sympathetic at one moment and dismissive the next. George Pierce represents the kind of legal mind lost to a system Roman decries, but rather than construct a full arc around him, Gilroy uses him alternately as a villain and a sidekick, before cramming in a last-minute change of heart that comes out of nowhere.

It doesn’t work. And neither does the pulpiest part of the film—involving an illegally purloined $100,000 reward—which is too convoluted and ludicrous to bother spoiling further. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would have been better served by embracing its smallness and, dare I say it, by being more conventional. There’s a worthy performance driving this movie, and there could have been a great tale at its heart; Gilroy just should have picked one story and told it.