Not knowing that Dan Gilroy, writer-director of “Nightcrawler,” brother of Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) wrote and directed it would help “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” simply by lowering expectations for the Denzel Washington legal drama.
Strip away any pretense of “Oscar contender” attached to Washington’s turn as an unreformed activist lawyer who never left his Civil Rights Movement past, faced with the moral dilemma of his life’s first, big mistake. Forget that his lumpy, “on the spectrum” character turn is designed to attract Oscar attention, and maybe this overlong but engaging character study in crisis goes down easier.
Sony/Columbia certainly wanted that to be the case, releasing this picture with little fanfare or pre-release attention from critics. They knew it was problematic, from Washington’s inconsistent-with-classic-Aspergers symptoms performance to a meandering, moralistic story that takes forever to get to its moment of crisis, and even longer to resolve it in the way we know it will.
Washington’s title character is “the pillar” behind a famous L.A. activist practice, for 36 years the “man behind the curtain” — doing the research, memorizing California statutes, compiling briefs and never erring in his judgement of the law and the injustices in the ways it is enforced.
“I’m quite confident of my recollections.”
That “savant” thing makes up for his bluntness, Roman’s prickliness, his never-changed hairstyle, unbending racial attitudes and slang — he still calls every black woman he meets “Sister,” ever black man “Brother.” He’s got one suit, and a sort of naive idealism that rarely stepping into court has never forced him to abandon.
And then his unseen partner has a heart attack, the practice is about to close and his one lifeline is from a man who is everything he is not, his partner’s sell-out super-successful protege, played with uncanny canniness by Colin Farrell. George Pierce may want to tidy up this in-the-red law firm run by his law school mentor. He may have an angle he’s playing as he tactfully tries to re-direct Roman’s rude brilliance into something his semi-predatory criminal law firm could use.
That’s the hide-his-hand style Farrell brings to the part. But on the surface, George is a rich, slick, smooth-talker who wants to do right by a man his mentor trusted as the brains of a practice that had social impact far beyond its billable hours.
Roman, who uses “Esquire” after his name, even though he often has to explain it, has not yet tired of “doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”
“I believe because of my beliefs.”
But he takes the job offer from George, because he cannot help but label the civil rights organization he’d like to work for “nickel and dime reformers” to its young director (Carmen Ejogo) when he’s begging for a job.
At some point, Roman will abandon some piece of himself, lose idealism and look for the easy, unethical way out. It’s just that Gilroy takes his damn sweet time getting us to that point.
Trying to create some sort of romantic interest between Roman and the younger activist played by Ejogo is laughable. We never do get a handle on what motivates George to indulge this square peg so hell-bent on seeking “justice” and so inept at asking for it.
The murder case that gets Roman into hot water isn’t remotely interesting, and his efforts to extract himself from it clumsily handled. Washington’s take on Roman, all-knowing, socially inept, “shy” and yet verbose, clueless and yet self-aware, callous and intensely compassionate, is jarring.
But we do get some fine civil rights lawyer sermonizing, Reverend Al Meets Johnny Cochrane.
“NOT speaking out is ordinary,” Roman preaches. The legally obvious is “an enema of sunshine,” “Freedom is something you can only give yourself.” “Lack of success is self-imposed.”
So what we have with the most honorable “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” is a lawyer better suited to being a judge, and a character — with all the inconsistencies of Washington’s performance (there are many variations of “on the spectrum”) — deserving of a better movie built around him.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some violence
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Tony Plana
Credits: Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 2:0