What an odd film this is, wholly befitting of its quirky central character. A backroom lawyer, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an empathetic super-computer, exceedingly well versed in law and awkwardly inept in society. In the hands of Denzel Washington, here is a commanding and thoroughly engaging performance. Unfortunately, the film itself lies in the less sure hands of writer-director Dan Gilroy and is a much more unwieldy construct.
For Gilroy, social misfits are ripe territory. His 2014 directorial debut saw Jake Gyllenhaal horrify as stringer Lou Bloom and his successor, Roman, is drawn from the same bow. Except, Roman J. Israel, Esq., as he insists on being known, is infinitely more likeable than Bloom, which is central to the problem. Less a rounded human being than a construct of characteristics (he almost constantly listens to music through his headphones, dresses like a savant and betrays occasional ticks), Roman’s journey through the film is more of a shuffling amble than dramatic thrust.
The film opens with Roman filing a court case against himself – ‘for being a hypocrite and turning his back on EVERYTHING he ever claimed to actually stand for’ – before jumping back three days. It’s an enticing premise, albeit clumsily mishandled, and intrigues enough to overcome the resultant sag of learning that Roman is your standard good-guy-in-a-bad-world lawyer (‘I chose cause over ambition’). He’s also terribly out of touch with the real world. In his company, a wash of brown hues, record players and chunky desktops, it is hard to determine quite which decade of the past forty Roman exists in.
Despite having being the equal partner of a LA law firm for either 26 or 36 years (the film can’t decide), Roman is very much the silent partner of William Henry Jackson, having hidden away from the spotlight of court to do the paperwork: ‘I don’t have the patience for the butchery that goes on in there’. When Jackson winds up in a vegetative state following a heart attack, then, Roman is cast-off and enters the employment of the more industrious George Pierce (a solid Colin Farrell). Learning hard truths about the past and coming to terms with the real world, Roman’s dubious decisions hereafter lead him down an alley of no return.
For all the efforts of its cast, and its own worthy intentions, Roman J. Israel, Esq. (a clumsy title) is a strangely desperate piece and disengaging by vice of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the film – indeed, in bursts, it’s rather enjoyable – but the experience as a whole doesn’t satisfy. You know its heart is in the right place but you wish it knew where that place was.