Denzel Washington has been nominated for seven acting Oscars, taking home two for “Glory” and “Training Day.” He’ll likely be nominated again this year for his turn as an idealistic defence attorney in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” but don’t expect a nod for the film overall.
Washington is the title character, a brilliant behind-the-scenes legal eagle who, for thirty-six years, allowed his business partner to to be the public face of their firm. He’s a throwback to another time with an iPod with 8000 carefully selected deep jazz cuts and suits with lapels wide enough to take flight should the right wind conditions arise. He’s a stickler for the rules, a savant with a photographic memory for details, a sharp tongue and a higher purpose. “Not speaking out is ordinary,” he says. “We are agents of change.”
When his long time partner suddenly dies Roman is forced to work with hotshot lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Pierce is a shark, a corporate player with four upscale Los Angeles law offices that are essentially plea factories. However, he recognizes Roman’s genius. Roman wants to do the work of the angels, but his unconventional demeanour makes it difficult to find work in his chosen field, civil rights. Short of cash, he takes Pierce up on his offer. A square peg in a round hole, his ideas about reforming the legal system and social revolution don’t endear him to his co-workers.
Soon though Roman has a change of heart. “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he says of his impoverished clients. “I have more practical concerns. My lack of success is self-inflicted.” When he uses privileged information for personal gain he sets in motion a series of events he can’t control.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of a man who betrays himself as well as others. He’s a man whose lifelong beliefs are pushed to the wayside when he butts up against a desperate situation. For a time his life gets better but, because this is a Dan Gilroy movie, you know it won’t last for long. It works for dramatic effect but Roman’s change of attitude rings hollow, as if simply having a few extra bucks in your back pocket—or, in this case, in a duffle bag in the stove—can smooth over all of Roman’s rough edges. The death of idealism is nothing new but the change in Roman never rings completely true.
Perhaps its because this is a legal drama with no courtroom showdown. It’s the anti “Law & Order,” a story that hinges on legal values but is more interested on how Roman believes in them, not why.
Still, while the movie may not satisfy as a frame for this interesting character, Washington impresses. He does edgy, complex work in a movie that is less interesting than its title character.